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Developing countries must bear responsibility for rural agriculture

Your editorial of 17 June 2002 referred to the 'real failure' of the World Food Summit as a lack of commitment towards funding for research relating to the needs of small farmers. It is not surprising that such meetings fail to come up with new and imaginative thinking. But to single out the weaknesses of research programmes as the major cause of deficiencies in the agricultural sector in developing countries ignores other more fundamental problems that must be addressed if technical agriculture is to have an impact in the developing world.

For years we have decried the lack of support for agricultural research. It is now generally recognised that science and technology can make a difference to food production and rural development, especially in developing countries — just think of the "Green Revolution". So it is not a failure on the part of science and technology that thwarts improvements in rural welfare.

To succeed, however, science and technology must operate in an environment of political and social stability. When this is in place great advances have been achieved in many developing countries, including India, China, and the Philippines. Even certain developed countries, whose agriculture has not been modernised, have shown remarkable advances with the adoption of rural and agricultural policies that favour the application of science and technology. But research alone cannot resolve or overcome policies that negatively impact on the rural sector.

With regard to funding for agricultural research, the conclusion is always the same: that developed country institutions — both public and private — are not meeting the needs of poor farmers in developing countries. Further, that spending by the private sector and multinational institutions is geared to commercial agriculture to the detriment of poor farmers, including small-scale and subsistence farmers. (See, for example, the IFPRI article 'Slow Magic: Agricultural R&D a Century After Mendel'.)

I believe that this continued focus on the "failure" of developed countries and their institutions to focus on the problems of poor farmers in developing countries is not in the best interests of international agricultural development, and certainly does nothing to resolve the problems of research institutions in many developing countries nor the problems of the poor and small farmers.

It must be acknowledged that businesses — be they multinationals, corporations or small companies — are primarily out to make money. Trying to change that ethos is futile in a world that believes in a capitalistic economy. Further, it is unrealistic to expect that public and private institutions in developed countries (which are mostly supported by the people of the particular state or nation) should focus their research, teaching and extension efforts on the problems of other regions. When they do, it is justified on the basis that these efforts directly benefit both the contributing and recipient countries, or it is done purely out of moral conviction. Finally, the observation that there is declining support for agricultural research, especially in the developed countries, must be made in the context of agricultural surpluses, falling world prices, support subsidies, trade and other economic considerations.

Unfortunately the global picture is composed of disparate national conditions. As pointed out in the editorial, these disparities between developed and developing countries are widening, and are unlikely to be evened out. Although are many actions that can be taken to resolve these issues, if we are willing to face them squarely, bashing developed countries and their institutions is not one of them. It is a lame excuse for failing to address particular problems in the locations where they occur.

It should also be remembered that over the past 50 years the generosity of developed countries has brought science and technology to bear on many agricultural production problems in developing countries. Those that have made the effort to tap into this knowledge system have benefited substantially from international assistance programs. Perhaps we could make greater advances in resolving some of the problems faced by poor rural communities if we set our minds on how this can be accomplished — in particular by looking at the social and political setting in developing countries — rather than focusing on the 'shortcomings' of developed country institutions and programs.

John A. Pino, Former director of agricultural sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation; 15 October 2002