by GRAIN | 11 Mar 1995

March 1995



The masterminds behind the Green Revolution gathered in Lucerne, Switzerland on February 9 and 10 to consider the future of the International Agricultural Research Centers (IARCs). The IARCs find themselves in the midst of a financial and institutional crisis, but the meeting, which hoped to achieve a "renewal" of international commitment to agricultural research and global food security, did little else than confirming the status quo. Fearing further decline in support for agricultural research and development that could truly empower farmers, a number of NGOs wrote to government ministers and delegations present at Lucerne expressing their alarm.


The international agricultural research network is supported through the informal Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) housed in the World Bank in Washington DC. Collectively, the 16 centers composing the CGIAR system claim to do the work that provides food for at least one billion people on the planet today who would otherwise not be fed. They have also provided training programmes for many agricultural scientist from almost every developing country. The 16 centers pride themselves for producing the technologies underpinning about 70% of the Third World's rice and wheat consumption and a substantial share of the world's maize, potato and other food output. CGIAR research strategies have become the global standard by which other crop and livestock breeding programmes are determined. This year, CGIAR's centers have a budget of barely $272 million. CGIAR is in the midst of its own (financial) famine. Scientific and technical personnel have been cut by 20 to 30% in recent years and major research programmes have been slashed.

An NGO call for consultation and reform

Against this backdrop the CGIAR ministerial meeting was organised in Luzerne on 9-10 February. RAFI (Rural Advancement Foundation International) and GRAIN (Genetic Resources Action International) drafted a open letter to the Lucerne participants. The letter was signed and supported by many other NGOs working in the field of sustainable agriculture. It called for:

* a "rebirth" rather than "renewal" of the CGIAR based on a full and effective external review of the international agricultural research system (no system-wide review of the CG has been conducted since 1981);

* a new research agenda and governance system drawing from a true consultative process at the local, national, regional and global levels involving farmers and their organisations, indigenous peoples, agricultural ministries and scientific institutions; and

* a debate over existing IARC policies on research goals and processes, intellectual property, and benefit-sharing.

The letter also proposed that the new consultative group be based upon five important principles:

1. The way to strengthen agricultural productivity and conserve biodiversity is to start with the poor who grow food and need diversity. Before a new consultative group emerges there must be a political commitment to the well-being of the farm community. This means effectively surrendering leadership to farmers.

2. A new consultative group must broaden its focus from commodity-based research to research addressing the broader enabling parameters of food security and livelihood systems. Research must be designed to serve wide and long-term development frameworks, not merely to attain short-term productivity boosts of discrete farm components.

3. A new consultative group must involve institutions and individuals who, through its governance and evaluating structures, can provide input from the all-encompassing social, political, ecological and economic context within which research is carried out. Hard science is not enough — we need wide science.

4. It is as much an issue of human rights — including Indigenous Peoples' Rights and Farmers' Rights — as it is of effectiveness, that a new consultative group begin with the full participation of the South.

5. International agricultural research success rests on global, regional, and national collaboration. The concept of "centers" should not be sacrosanct. A new consultative group must be free to give financial support to initiatives that do not involve centers.

Little progress in Luzerne

Only one week after the Luzerne meeting, over 20 NGOs met to analyse its outcome. In their evaluation, the meeting fell far short of its objectives. Firstly, the CGIAR was not able to attract the high level of Ministerial participation they had invited. This lower-than-expected level of representation made significant decision-making difficult. Secondly, the CGIAR had called for a significant rise in financial commitment from the current level of $272 million per annum to $400 million within five years. This call did not make it into their final declaration. Instead they were forced to settle for a weak indication that donors would at least try to maintain the funding at current levels. Thus, there is no guarantee that the decline in the CGIAR's funding of more than 20% experienced in recent years will not continue. Also, despite both external and internal calls for a third system-wide external review of the CGIAR, the final conference statement is quite unclear as to whether such a review will take place. The last full review took place fourteen years ago (1981). But perhaps most importantly, the Lucerne meeting could not agree on firm proposals for a genuine "renewal" of the CGIAR system. Instead, it contented itself with the repetition of cosmetic generalities regarding such central issues as governance (including participation of the South and farmers) and the need for real change in research agendas and methodologies. Also, there was no consideration of outstanding policy issues such as intellectual property rights or the flow of benefits of CGIAR research results to the industrialised donor countries. Further, the system continues to lack a clear international legal identity.


Apart from calling for a broad consultation and restructuring of the international research system, NGOs asked the Lucerne meeting to pay particular attention to four points of concern:

Governance: After almost a quarter century of supposedly strengthening the Third World's agricultural research and production capacities, the CGIAR remains a rich man's club for industrialised country donors. Eighthy-five percent of the main chair and staff positions in the CGIAR are held by the North. The key decision-makers, in fact, come from only four countries: Australia, Canada, the UK and the USA:

Benefits: The CGIAR has failed to address the fact that its research, ostensibly directed at the South, contributes billions of dollars to the North's agricultural development. In a recent UNDP study, the kickback to industrialised countries was placed at US$3-4 billion per annum, a ten-fold return on donor investment.

Finances: The CGIAR keeps power in the hands of industrial country donors by obliging "members" to pay annual half-million dollar fees. The World Bank and others now suggest that poor countries could pool their money together to buy joint seats at the table. Yes, the Third World should have a greater say but not through buying their way in.

Policy: CG centers profess to be a political when, in fact, they are uni-political. The NGOs pointed out that political realities require the CG centers to be answerable for their policies and practices to the intergovernmental community. At the moment, CGIAR has no legal persona.

The NGOs agreed to continue with their efforts to monitor and influence the restructuring process along the lines highlighted above. To do so they are now forming an NGO Task Force on International Agricultural Research. The Task Force will provide a more detailed assessment of agricultural research processes and requirements, which will be made available at the Ministerial Preparatory Meeting for the World Food Summit, Quebec City, October 1995.

Author: GRAIN