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[NEW DELHI] The International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), currently located near Hyderabad in India, has been advised to move its headquarters to Africa to help focus its research on the problems of that continent.

The recommendation has been made by a five-member external review panel chaired by Paul Vlek of the Centre for Development Research in Bonn, Germany, which argues that “ICRISAT must find a way of accomplishing the same successes in Africa as it has achieved in Asia”.

The panel was set up by the Washington-based Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the body that runs ICRISAT and 15 other agricultural research centres around the world.

ICRISAT, which already has three regional stations in Africa, was set up more than 30 years ago to focus on research on crops such as millet, groundnut, chick pea and sorghum that are important in arid regions of Africa and India.

It has recently diversified into areas such as improving cash crops, livestock rearing, biotechnology and transgenic crops. But questions have been raised both about this strategy — adopted partly in a bid to raise outside funding — and about whether India is the most appropriate location for its headquarters, given the country’s recent successes in achieving food self-sufficiency.

The centre has already been hit by declining donor support. This year's budget of US$22.3 million is US$1.5 million lower than last year, and has led the institute to cut its workforce by 200 to about 600, the lowest since the institute was set up in 1972 (see Funding cuts hit Indian agricultural centre).

In its report, which was submitted on 11 July, the panel now says that ICRISAT “should rapidly restructure its programmes and transfer its headquarters and virtually all of its programmes to sub-Saharan Africa.”

It recommends that ICRISAT should limit its role in Asia to strategic plant genetic resources and enhancement (PGRE) for the so-called ‘mandate crops’. It asks the institute to give up its other roles such as water and soil management and enhancing livestock productivity to national agencies, and to re-deploy the resources used to meet these commitments in Africa.

The panel said that in its view, the most desirable future option for ICRISAT would be for its African programmes to be “significantly strengthened”, while PGRE research would be carried out in Pattancheru, near Hyderabad, where ICRISAT's gene bank is located.

In the panel's view, ICRISAT is better placed to make a future impact in Africa — where national agricultural research systems are weak — than in Asia, which is already “a region of major economic and technological advances.”

William Dar, director general of ICRISAT, announced earlier this year that the centre is to receive a share in the US$16 million earmarked by the Global Environmental Facility for a five-year research project on a "desert margin initiative" in sub-Saharan Africa.

The panel praises ICRISAT's “remarkable scientific accomplishments”. But it criticises the centre for failing to strike an adequate balance between the needs of Africa and Asia.

So far, there has been no comment from ICRISAT on the review panel’s recommendations, although Dar has told his staff that the management and governing board will soon make an “institutional response to [its] recommendations.”

But E.A. Siddiq, a former deputy general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and now a member of the Board of International Rice Research Institute in Manila says India would not lose anything even if ICRISAT were wound up completely. “It has not done any thing more than ICAR, and its departure [would be] no loss,” he says.