New! Sign up for our free email newsletter.
Science News
from research organizations

Report finds radical change needed for global agriculture

March 24, 2010
Burness Communications
A report to be released at a pivotal global meeting on agriculture finds that transforming the agriculture agenda to meet the challenges of a warmer, environmentally-degraded world of 9 billion people will require changes "as radical as those that occurred during industrial and agricultural revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries."

A report to be released at a pivotal global meeting on agriculture finds that transforming the agriculture agenda to meet the challenges of a warmer, environmentally-degraded world of 9 billion people will require changes "as radical as those that occurred during industrial and agricultural revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries."

The comprehensive assessment, Transforming Agricultural Research for Development, suggests the need for massive reform of the architecture of what it terms a currently "fragmented global system of research and development," in order to better reach small-scale farmers on the ground, while making food production more sustainable and the systems in which they are produced more resilient to future climatic and energy shocks.

The report, funded by a range of international organizations and development agencies, including the World Bank, European Commission, and the UK Department for International Development, provides a stage-setter at the first Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD), which has been tasked by the G8 to turn priorities on future needs in agriculture into constructive actions to reshape its future. Nearly one thousand participants, including World Food Prize Laureates, heads of international organizations, agriculture ministers, farmers, civil society groups, community development organizations, leading scientists, and private sector innovators are expected to participate in the meeting, taking place 28-31 March in Montpellier, France. The report, prepared by a team of experts led by Uma Lele and including Eugene Terry, Eduardo Trigo and Jules Pretty, builds on extensive consultations across all continents in 2009 and their considerable experience in global food and agriculture, and is undergoing review by stakeholders around the world. It will be formally presented at GCARD on March 29.

According to World Bank estimates, some 1.4 billion people were already living in poverty in 2005, well before the 2007 food price increases and the 2008 financial crisis. Since the financial crisis, an additional 100 million people are now believed to have joined the ranks of the poor and hungry, according to both FAO and World Bank estimates. "It is clear that the Millennium Development Goal of substantially reducing the world's hungry by 2015 will not be met. A major cause has been a steady decline in policy attention to agriculture and rural development," said Uma Lele, the lead author of the report and Former Senior Adviser at the World Bank. "Little has been done by developed and developing countries alike to deal with the daunting challenge of hunger with long term- development assistance to agriculture and rural development. Rather as a flip side of development, short term emergency food and other emergency aid have increased."

Over the 1981 to 2007 period, the share of net aid flows to developing countries has become negative for Latin America and for East Asia, and it has declined substantially for South Asia. Even for sub-Saharan Africa, net aid has declined and less of it has been going to agriculture. "Barring the three big countries of China, India, and Brazil, capacity of most developing countries in agricultural R&D has been winding down," said Lele. "We must make a quantum leap in building back up their capacity and translate government and donor pledges into concrete actions."

"There has been remarkable progress in food production over the past half-century, with historically unprecedented improvements when agricultural research and development were given primacy," said Jules Pretty, a global author and Professor of Environment & Society, Department of Biological Sciences, at the University of Essex, UK. "But some of those benefits were spread unevenly, and there are big problems around the corner: climate change, the energy crunch, economic uncertainty, population growth, environmental degradation, and a shift in consumption patterns in emerging economies that are following the same unsustainable models found in the West. Substantial changes are needed in the levels and types of aid and the way it is given."

According to the report, the global population will likely reach 9.0 billion by about 2050, mostly from developing countries. Urban populations will increase from today's 3.4 billion to well over 6billion. With higher incomes and different tastes, diets in developing countries will shift from low- to high- value cereals, poultry, meats, fruits and vegetables. While this will constitute an improvement for many, this major shift in consumer preference for nutritional security is also likely to be accompanied by hunger and poverty in the countries with the poorest populations, while obesity rates as high as those now seen in wealthy countries would occur in others. Increased demand for fossil fuels for fertilizers and transport to meet growing food demands will likely change the prospects for biofuels.

"The business-as-usual model of how things have been organized over the previous 50 to 70 years is no longer an option. We have to go back to the drawing board," said Eduardo Trigo, a global author, Director of Grupo CEO, and Scientific Advisor to the International Relations Directorate of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation of Argentina.

The authors contend that there should be enough knowledge and resources available -- or that can be mobilized -- to tackle the problems of poverty and hunger, if the system for doing so could be massively overhauled. The report sets an approach for transforming the current global system of cooperation in agricultural research for development into "a coherent whole so as to achieve more rapid, scaled-up and sustainable impacts on food security, poverty, and the environment." The report and overall conference process are seeking to ensure that agricultural research for development will be more inclusive of both women and the needs of small farmers.

The report provides a holistic view of the myriad actors that currently form this fragmented global agricultural research system -- the landscape of actors and funders in the agricultural system as it stands today; regional research organizations and their development needs; and a roadmap of guidelines for translating the products of agricultural research into larger and quicker development successes. It includes references to some 300 pieces of research; a review of dozens of documents, international assessments and summits on the state of agriculture undertaken over at least two decades; and consultations with national governments, members of civil society, scientists, and other key players from all regions of the world. The consultations undertaken have involved direct inputs from over two thousand people.

Investments Needed

"We are in a paradoxical state where we are living in the age of knowledge, but the level of investments going to agricultural research is less than half of what it should be," said Trigo. "And there is ample evidence that these investments are tremendously profitable."

This pattern of concentration parallels what is happening in overall science spending throughout the world, according to the report. In developed countries, agricultural R&D has also become increasingly concentrated in a handful of countries, with just four countries (the United States, Japan, France, and Germany) accounting for 66% of all global public R&D conducted in 2000. Similarly, just five developing countries (China, India, Brazil, Thailand and South Africa) undertook just over 53% of the developing countries' public agricultural R&D in 2000 -- up from 40% in 1981. Meanwhile, in 2000, a total of 80 countries with a combined population of approximately 625 million people conducted only 6.3% of total agricultural R&D.

To meet the backlog of underinvestment alone, the report calls increasing agricultural research investments in developing countries to 1.5 percent of agricultural GDP, more than double or triple the current investments in scientific capacity and institutions and delivery mechanisms at both the national and international levels.

Some analysts say that to meet FAO estimates of food demand in 2050, annual investments in developing countries of about US $210 billion gross or US $83 billion net in 2009 dollars would be needed annually after allowing for depreciation of the existing stock of capital. This is an increase of almost 50% over current levels. These needs would decline over time with increased efficiency in agriculture and decelerating demand for food, say the global authors.

Currently, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which was set up by the World Bank and wealthy country donors in the 1970s to develop new crop varieties, farm management techniques and innovations to farmers in the developing world, constitutes about 4-5% of the total global public sector expenditures on agricultural research, according to the report. The CGIAR's Strategic Results Framework has estimated that public agricultural research and development for developing countries would need to increase from the current $5.1 billion to $16.4 billion by 2025 of which the $1.6 billion would need to be the CGIAR element. The report contends that this is the minimum amount needed since developing-country needs for research extend beyond the CGIAR's mandates.

"GCARD is intended to leverage the remaining 94-95%, which includes both public research systems of developed and developing countries which are often not responsive to the needs of smallholder farmers," said Lele. "With the 4-5% from the CGIAR, the objective is to get a much bigger bang for the buck on effectiveness and impact."

"Donors need to increase aid levels for capacity building and especially to the regions of the world with the greatest concentration of poverty; these include Asia with two thirds of the world's poverty and Sub-Saharan Africa with slightly less than a third. The $20 billion the G8 committed for food and agriculture over three years is too small. It also remains to be seen whether it will materialize," said Lele.

"In addition, CGIAR, which already has a track record in research would need to help make a case for additional investments in developing countries" said Eugene Terry, a global author and former Director General of one of the 15 CGIAR centers (Africa Rice/WARDA), Founding Director of the African Agriculture Technology Foundation, and Ex-Chair of the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF).

The CGIAR is undergoing a reform process to ensure it has a greater collective impact, simplified governance, and clarified accountabilities with clear and distinct roles for both investors and implementers.

"It is clear that the issues of food insecurity and poverty, rather than the funding cycles of governments and donors, need to drive the strategic frameworks both of national agricultural research systems and of the CGIAR," write the authors.

Gaining Production Increases "Outside the Box"

"Without viable livelihoods, the resource-poor smallholder farmers will move to the cities in the future," said Trigo. "Addressing food security issues in urban areas is completely different than doing so in rural areas. The focus will have to shift to producing food by the poor for the poor. During the food crisis, we had food riots not in the rural areas, but in the cities."

Options deployed over the previous five decades for ensuring big productivity gains to meet the enormous and diverse food needs of the future are no longer on the table or the most sustainable options, say the authors. These include "extensification," or moving agriculture onto lands currently not being used. "We need to produce food for a growing population on the same piece of land," said Terry. "Sustainable intensification now has to be given high priority to reduce negative environmental impact."

To get the production increases needed, the authors call for a broader approach to agricultural research for development that departs from the traditional approach that keeps scientists who develop a technology separate from the process that delivers that new technology to farmers. The report calls for greater participation amongst a broad range of stakeholders in the seed-to-table chain of events -- from the rural farmer to the scientist, in addition to the players in between, including extension officers, the private sector, national and regional agricultural programs, and civil society. It also calls for recognizing and drawing on the tremendous innovation of farmers themselves. According to the authors, agriculture is highly context-specific and needs to move away from the expectation that research advances can be applied as one recipe -- or single models as silver bullets -- developed globally and applied locally.

"Development problems cannot be solved by research alone, as research by itself can be a blunt instrument," said Terry. "Research has to be translated into real development outcomes. There are many pathways to achieve this, including through partnerships, but none of them involve linear solutions."

"Real partnerships with developing countries in leadership roles are needed to enable developing countries to address their problems in ways only they can," said Lele.

Closing the yield gap between the best yields and those realized by a large majority of farmers calls for increased investments in adaptive research, extension, and a variety of other delivery services which constrain growth, write the authors.

"If you can get the conditions right in agriculture, you've got millions of farmers, men and women, with ideas on how to improve things," said Pretty. "If they could just have access to credit or fertilizer, they could go a long way. It is this locked-up innovation we have previously been unable to get at, because the poor are starving or hungry or powerless or excluded. We just have to find a key. The trouble is there are billions of keys. That's why you need the new architecture for agricultural research to keep finding the keys and unlocking the potential."

Story Source:

Materials provided by Burness Communications. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Cite This Page:

Burness Communications. "Report finds radical change needed for global agriculture." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 March 2010. <>.
Burness Communications. (2010, March 24). Report finds radical change needed for global agriculture. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 3, 2023 from
Burness Communications. "Report finds radical change needed for global agriculture." ScienceDaily. (accessed December 3, 2023).

Explore More
from ScienceDaily