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[LUSAKA] Some US$15 billion will need to be spent on agricultural research in sub-Saharan Africa over the next 20 years if efforts to tackle hunger and malnutrition are to succeed, says the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

In a report released yesterday (12 August), the US-based institute recommended policies to increase food security on the continent.

To project how the number of malnourished children could change by 2025, IFPRI compared different policy scenarios.

Under the 'pessimistic' scenario, in which investment declines and HIV/AIDS continues to grip sub-Saharan Africa, the number of children affected was predicted to increase to 55.1 million from the 1997 figure of 32.7 million.

A 'business as usual' scenario, in which current policies persist, would also see child malnutrition increasing, to 39.3 million.

But under the 'vision' scenario, the figure would drop to 9.4 milllion, which would more than meet the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving, by 2015, the proportion of children who are malnourished.

Achieving this 'vision' would, however, require "dramatic increases" in funding for agricultural research and other sectors such as irrigation, road building and the provision of clean water.

IFPRI's report says sub-Saharan Africa would need US$15 billion of investment in crop research by 2025 to increase yields. It recommends investment in both conventional breeding and biotechnology.

Although the report says that genetically modified crops have the potential to alleviate hunger in Africa, it acknowledges that some countries are reluctant to adopt the technology. Other biotechnologies, such as tissue culture and using molecular techniques to accelerate conventional crop breeding, should still be pursued, it says.

"Drastic changes must also take place in the way research and extension are carried out in Africa," it adds, highlighting the need for agricultural extension officers to increase farmers' knowledge about sustainable pest management and fertiliser use, especially in semi-arid areas.

The report also calls for stronger links between universities and government research institutions, as well as the establishment of better networks for the exchange of technical information within Africa and outside the region.

Mark Rosegrant, the report's lead author, told SciDev.Net that public-private partnerships will be essential if biotechnology is to take off in African agricultural research.

"Rather than leaving it to the private sector alone, public companies in Africa should get involved in biotechnology research and genetic modification," he said.

The report points out that as African governments' spending on crop research has declined, private-sector involvement in crop research has not greatly increased.

It says that in 1995, private sector investments in developed countries amounted to 55 per cent of the total in agricultural research and development — whereas in the same year, private sector investments in developing countries were just 5.5 per cent of total spending.

In addition to boosting investment in crop research, the report calls for more funding to improve education, supplies of drinking water, irrigation and rural roads.

"Our findings reveal that an additional US$4.7 billion per year in investments above 'business as usual' investment levels, along with appropriate policy changes, would enable Africa to confront child malnutrition as effectively as the rest of the developing world," says Rosegrant.

The report says that donor assistance to African agricultural research has declined as a result of priorities shifting towards environmental protection, health and education.

Link to full IFPRI report