Flogging a dying horse of agricultural research

Bill Gates' donation of USD 25 million for 'biofortification'—breeding crops with higher levels of micronutrients—is an effort to provide a life-saving shot to the dying family of public-sector international agricultural research institutes. Ironically, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the much heralded institution responsible for ushering in the green revolution technology, is now seriously struggling to keep itself alive. Faced with huge staff layoffs, drastic reductions in research programmes, declining research output and vanishing financial commitments, the CGIAR is contemplating a series of mergers to stay afloat. Gasping for breath, the institute is even considering the merger of two of its premier institutes—the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at Los Banos, in the Philippines, and the International Crop Research Centre for Wheat and Maize (CIMMYT), in Mexico City.

Such has been the level of desperation that the CGIAR has deviated from its stated position of working for the public good when in 2002 it decided to take on board Syngenta Foundation – an agency established by Syngenta, a global leader in agribusiness. The company's primary business is crop protection bio-technology and high-value commercial seeds, whose sales in the year 2000 were USD 6.9 billion. This major shift in CGIAR's known public image had prompted the group's committee of non-government organisations to freeze its relationship with the organisation. The NGOs believe that the CGIAR has abdicated its responsibility of ensuring food security for the world's poor by bringing in technologies that lead to economically viable and sustainable farming systems. Instead, the CGIAR is evolving into a service centre for corporate interests.

The decade of the 1970s was the period when CGIAR's green revolution technology, supported by appropriate national farm policies, ushered in food self-sufficiency for many of the chronically food deficit countries. Two decades later, in the 1990s, intensive agriculture had begun to take its toll. Apart from the deterioration of the environment that it unleashed, there were other consequences too. Thousands of farmers all over the world, from the technology-sophisticated and subsidy-rich United States, European Union, Japan and Canada to the poor and marginalised majority of the world in India, China, Argentina, Zimbabwe, Mexico, the Philippines and many other countries, have been plunged into a crisis of sustenance. In the poorer countries, the commercial control that agribusinesses have established over the production process has pushed small and medium farmers over the brink of security and into a vortex of mounting debt, leading eventually to the loss of their meagre pieces of land.

All the while, the CGIAR has remained a mute spectator. Not even once did it find it worthwhile to look into the real causes behind this spate of agrarian bankruptcies. If anything it is tainted by association, because the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), one of the organisations funded by CGIAR and which was a beneficiary of Bill Gates' largesse, has concentrated its energies on pushing market reforms in the guise of "sustainably meeting the food needs of the developing world" (as its mission statement says). IFPRI is at the forefront of the frantic campaign to dismantle national policies that had propelled countries to take advantage of the green revolution technology. Such has been its descent into business fetishism that it even wants to bring relief within the purview of the market.

IFPRI has gone to the extent of suggesting that food aid, which is governed by an inefficient UN Food Convention, be actually brought under the World Trade Organisation's ambit. Is it not time that the CGIAR begins its own restructuring by closing down the IFPRI? After all, by the principles of market rationality, where is the need to duplicate what the World Bank can do more effectively!

It is evident the CGIAR has abandoned the marginal farmer to join the anachronistic chorus extolling the virtues of corporate-controlled agriculture. An international research system, dominated entirely by Western experts scarcely acquainted in any real sense with the ground realities in developing countries, sooner or later had inevitably to collapse. The institute has for all practical purposes become a victim of its own flawed, donor-driven policies. In the attempt to rectify its own maladies it has once again succumbed to the same forces that led it to abandon its original mandate. Bill Gates' donation comes as a bailout gift for the ailing organisation, but the net result is that its agendas will become more and more detrimental to the interests of the larger agrarian community in the developing world as CGIAR throws its weight behind the corporate club.

Crank solutions
Ever since the release of the dwarf wheat and rice crop varieties some 25-30 years ago, international agricultural research centres have only been engaged in maintenance research. They have simply been trying to protect what has already been evolved and released. With no clear-cut direction and vision, the donors had begun to drift away. The CGIAR therefore attempted a number of options, such as special thematic research programmes under the 'challenge programmes', but in the end it could come up with no purposeful plan of action to keep itself alive. Floating in the winds of change, it followed the neo-liberal consensus, dumping food security in favour of climate change, and sustainable agriculture for market reforms and globalisation.

Biofortification was one of the misplaced research priorities that CGIAR had proposed earlier but was unable to undertake in the light of the outcry against it. Moreover this particular priority made no research sense, but that was not an insuperable objective since research programmes are no longer required to make any sense. The idea behind this venture was to breed crops that supplement micronutrients. 'Golden rice' is just one instance of the kind of irrational research that is carried out in today's climate. This much-touted variety of rice, the sum total of whose micronutrient value-addition amounted to a miniscule quantum of beta-carotene, has now been widely accepted as misadventure. Distinguished scientists have already confirmed that golden rice cannot address the problem of Vitamin A deficiency.

But ordinary constraints have not stood in the way of crank solutions being developed and dignified as scientific remedies to what are ultimately economic problems. Fortified crops cannot eradicate nutrient deficiency. Technology simply cannot address this problem. Whether the newly evolved genetically-modified crops contain supplements of Vitamin A, iron or zinc, these foods will bring no benefits to those who need it desperately—the malnourished. The reason is simple. The human body requires adequate amount of fats to absorb these nutrients, which is conspicuously absent in malnourished populations. The chronically hungry therefore gain nothing by eating these food supplements. What is more, recourse to this futile technological fix only accentuates the original problem. The higher market price of such grains, owing to their high intellectual property costs, erodes the capacity to buy other kinds of food. In the process, further imbalances are created in one's nutritional status. The biofortification programme is in reality aimed at restoring the credibility of the discredited biotechnology industry, which has come under increasing attack from a number of organisations and groups in Europe and elsewhere.

Bill Gates was probably not properly advised, and for obvious reasons. Harvest Plus, a mere CGIAR public relations outfit, is in dire need of financial resources and therefore used the emotional card of hunger and malnutrition to seek funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Not realising that 'hidden hunger', as nutrient deficiency is generally referred to, cannot be removed by providing the poor and hungry with an 'informed choice' of novel and functional foods. What the poor need is food—which is abundantly available—and that too food rich in nutrients. In India, for instance, which is home to one-third of the world's hungry and malnourished, more than 30 million tonnes of wheat and rice (which was a record 65 million tonnes a year ago) are rotting in the open. The surplus food contains an average of nine percent proteins—four to nine times more than is to be found in any fortified GM crop that scientists have developed so far.

A greater humanitarian purpose would have been served if Bill Gates had instead donated grants to institutes and groups that would have helped reach the abundantly available food to the poor, to ensure that the hungry are adequately fed. The reality is that the poor and hungry do not have the means to buy the food that is available and going bad in front of their eyes. If the hungry cannot afford to buy their normal dietary requirement of rice (or for that matter any other staple food) for a day, how the CGIAR proposes to make high cost 'golden rice' available to them is something that the Gates Foundation programme officers probably forgot to ask. The global scientific and development community (including CGIAR) has failed to understand that if they had aimed at eradicating hunger in the first place, there would be no 'hidden hunger'.

Would Bill Gates understand that biotechnology, the way it is being promoted by corporate interests, has the potential to further the great divide between haves and have-nots? The twin engines of economic growth—technological revolution and globalisation—will only widen the existing gap between the well-fed and the hungry. Biotechnology will, in reality, push more people into the hunger trap. With public attention and resources being diverted from the ground realities, hunger will only grow in the years to come.

CGIAR's blind support for the corporate agenda, therefore, is a pointer to the growing irrelevance of the international agricultural research institutes. Such is the poverty of ideas to meet the growing food needs of the world that the CGIAR has been gradually made to die a premature death, much of which of course was its own doing. It is time for the CGIAR board, which is firmly in the grip of the World Bank and the Japanese government, to follow what is enshrined in its original mandate. The CGIAR should handover the 16 research centres that it supports to the respective countries where these are located. This is what the forefathers of the research system had said at the time of creating the CGIAR, and they were so right. Nothing can revitalise this dying horse,  not even Bill Gates with his millions, if the CGIAR cannot stand up for the cause of the poor and marginalised farmer.

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Himal Southasian