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Some of the key foods that could help solve the global food crisis will be the focal point of six new research programmes totalling US$957 million over the next three years.

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) — a network of governments and organisations that funds 15 major research centres around the world — conditionally approved proposals for the programmes yesterday (20 July).

It is the latest move in a radical overhaul of CGIAR's research activities, promoting large-scale, joined-up research, which began in December 2009.

The six new programmes are among 15 setting global research priorities for improving food security while protecting the environment over the next 25 years.

The newly approved programmes aim to improve wheat productivity (US$113.6 million); root, tuber and banana yields (US$207.3 million) and meat, fish and milk availability (US$119.7 million).

They also aim to help poor people reliant on aquatic agriculture (US$59.4 million); to study how to use agriculture to tackle under-nutrition, for example by developing biofortified foods (US$191.4 million) and to investigate how policies and institutions can help rural smallholders, especially women, access markets (US$265.5 million).

Jonathan Wadsworth, executive secretary of the CGIAR Fund Council, told SciDev.Net that the research programmes are likely to start receiving funding by the end of 2011.

The CGIAR Fund — a central fund established earlier this year to encourage donors to make multi-year funding commitments — is expected to provide a total of US$477.5 million to the six programmes over three years. It currently holds around US$130 million.

The remaining US$480 million will come from additional donations directly to the CGIAR research centres.

"We've got every confidence that what donors have said they will be providing will transpire — probably with a growth of between five and ten per cent on last year," said Wadsworth, adding that his optimism was based on increases for agricultural research funding seen in previous years.

Five research programmes — on rice, climate change, forests, drylands and maize — have already been approved. The remaining programmes are scheduled for approval in November.

Steve Wiggins, an agricultural and rural development researcher from the United Kingdom's Overseas Development Institute, welcomed the CGIAR identifying key research priorities.

"If you tell senior decision-makers there are 142 things we need to do with agriculture, they won't listen. If there are five things, they'll give us a hearing," he said.

But he warned that research discoveries alone cannot improve food security: "We need to invest in rural areas in power supplies, decent schooling, health and clean water for people to be able to use [agricultural] technology".