October 20, 1998

Frustrated Harvest

Frost has come early for the CGIAR's much-awaited Systemwide Review

After 17 years - a 17 day wonder? Now the question is, what next?

In search of vindication and vision, the CGIAR's first Systemwide Review in 17 years is indeed a vociferous defence of the past but its recommendations for the future vacuous and doomed to be discounted. After 18 months and $1.5 million is the System back where it started? How will it recover from its post-harvest losses?

This year, the 16 International Agricultural Research Centres and the more than 40 donor-members of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) will spend about US$325 million on research on world food security. Thus, the CGIAR is the world's largest agricultural science network solely devoted to fighting hunger. That's why the network's just-completed Systemwide Review - the first since 1981 - is a hot topic from the rice terraces of Mindanao to the Altiplano potato fields of Bolivia. When Centres and donors discuss the report at the World Bank building in Washington (October 26-30) the CGIAR's evaluation will either reshape the way in which scientists conduct agricultural research - or entrench the status quo.

Half-Hearted Harvest: The betting has to be on the status quo. Not that the report prepared by a 9-member blue-ribbon panel (chaired by Maurice Strong of Rio Earth Summit fame) is not a ringing endorsement of agricultural research and CGIAR. Warning that policy-makers have become complacent about global food production, the panel stresses that population growth and climate change are threatening future food availability even as crop yields are stagnating. Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are particularly vulnerable and, according to the panel, there is urgent need to adopt advanced new biotechnologies and to partner with the private sector in order to avert future famines.

But the sombre warnings of pending problems are little more than a watered-down replay of the 1996 World Food Summit and even the biotech hype comes off half-hearted. The report's other scientific mantra, the internet and the potential for distance-learning seems disturbingly trite for a scientific network that prides itself on being cutting-edge."


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