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A global effort to assess how science can improve agriculture has received a US$3 million boost thanks to a grant made by the World Bank last week (29 March).

The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development will evaluate the relevance and effectiveness of different agricultural technologies, from traditional irrigation techniques to genetically modified crops.

"We need to make informed decisions now in order to meet the future needs of growing populations and changing diets, and to improve the health and wellbeing of poor people," said project director Robert Watson in a press release.

"These decisions must also protect the environment and ensure broad-based economic growth," added Watson, who is the World Bank's chief scientist.

The three-year project aims to give policymakers robust information on how science can improve agriculture and contribute to sustainable development.

It will assess the impacts of new and existing technologies, highlight key uncertainties and risks, and identify priorities for research and investment.

The project, which involves governments, researchers, businesses and civil society groups from around the world, will produce global and regional reports in much the same way as the recent Millennium Ecosystem Assessment — which Watson co-chaired (see Healthy ecosystems 'critical in fight against poverty').

Its initial reports will be made public by the end of 2007.

The new grant from the World Bank's Global Environment Facility will be supplemented with US$7.5 million from other donor agencies, including the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Shivaji Pandey, chair of FAO working group on biotechnology, says more political commitment is needed to make science and technology integral to development strategies.

He told SciDev.Net that developing countries should invest more in agricultural research and technology development because of their high rates of return.