by GRAIN | 15 Jun 1996

June 1996



Evidence keeps accumulating to demonstrate that Green Revolution agriculture is unsustainable. The so-called high yielding varieties which underpinned the Revolution and their associated high external input technologies continue to undermine the resource base by destroying genetic diversity, compacting soils, eradicating farms, and polluting water supplies. Industrial agriculture is clearly in crisis. In 1994, the forces behind the Green Revolution — the International Agricultural Research Centres (IARCs) and their governing body, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) -- also found themselves in a crisis. Now the CGIAR claims to have overcome the crisis by undertaking a comprehensive Renewal Process.


Two years ago, life must have been hard for the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Only after the event was it able to admit that it had been in a deep crisis. The CGIAR felt orphaned and unloved. Its publication `CGIAR News' describes agriculture as the `neglected sector', which was `discriminated against' and was `suspected of causing environmental degradation.' CGIAR blames `post cold war overseas development assistance (ODA) fatigue' for the decrease in funding for agricultural research and for governments ignoring the potential of the CGIAR research to feed a hungry world. The CGIAR's funding problems caused its scientists to become `insecure and demoralised'. However, this has all changed since, and the CGIAR claims to have countered the crisis, renewed its vision and redefined its mission and its relationship with its Southern clients. These changes led the Chair of the CGIAR-system, Ismail Serageldin, to declare November 1995 that `We have moved from a mode of crisis to a mood of confidence.'

When Ministers of Agriculture and other high level policy makers travelled to Lucerne, Switzerland in February 1995 to discuss the future of the CGIAR, hopes were high that they would provide the necessary input for the full restructuring of a system in crisis. In their briefcases, they carried bulky documents highlighting the challenges to agricultural research in the future and reviewing the achievements of the CGIAR in the past. But rather than proposing change, the meeting adopted a declaration on the renewal of the system and declared that its new mission is now `promoting sustainable agriculture for food security in developing countries'.

In an open letter to the ministerial meeting NGOs called for a rebirth rather than a renewal, based on a full and effective external review of the system, since no system-wide review had been conducted since 1981. NGOs also called for a truly consultative process at the local, national, regional and global levels involving farmers and their organisations, indigenous peoples, governments and the scientific community as well as for a debate over existing policies on research goals and processes, and Intellectual Property Rights. (See Seedling, March 1995)

The NGO points were not seriously addressed by the high level gathering, or by any meeting following up on it. Although the action programme that came out of Lucerne made itself more palatable by incorporating the language of sustainability, gender and social concerns, it did not address the central issues as governance and the need for real change in the CGIAR's research agenda and methodologies. Disappointed NGOs committed themselves to continue the fight for a more farmer-centred agricultural research.

At the CGIAR's Centres Week in November 1995 the CGIAR embraced the vision outlined by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) as its own. IFPRI argues for another version of Green Revolution - this time with the help of biotechnologies - to feed the world, prevent poverty and protect the earth. The main challenge is still to keep one step ahead in the race with population growth, which, according to Ismail Serageldin will be won by `a steady flow of improved technologies for food production'. Not everybody agrees. Eric B. Ross, Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague (the Netherlands) has described it as a `Malthusian view of food production'. He points out that the new strategy `demonstrates that the lessons of the Green Revolution are being dismissed, or perhaps, that they are actually well understood and appreciated. For forty years, the Malthusian spectre and the Cold War together have justified a process of agricultural development that has enhanced Western corporate interests at the expense of rural poor."

Renewal Results

The new vision and the broadened partnerships are the main results of the renewal process. However, CGIAR documents point out several more areas where new policies have been accepted or new action is being proposed.

Membership and Governance

CGIAR is proud that during its Renewal the Southern membership has increased. CGIAR now has 16 Southern countries (including the Russian Federation) and 21 industrialised countries as members. Membership simply requires paying a fee to the CGIAR. Critics argue that it is inappropriate to put the South on the same payment plant as the North, since the South also donates germplasm and the North receives - according to calculations from RAFI based on government information - at least $5 billion a year in benefits from the CG Centres through germplasm and improved seed varieties. This is a handsome return on investments since annual contributions to the CG-system amount to about US$ 300 million.

One of the NGO demands on the CGIAR was to carry out a `full and effective' external review of the system as a whole. An Impact Assessment and Evaluation Group was established during the Renewal Process which is expected to become active later in 1996. While during the Lucerne meeting there was clear opposition to a full fledged external review, and reference to it was removed from the final declarations, it now seems that one is being prepared. However, perhaps more important than whether an external review will be held, is the question of how `external' it will be and which questions will be on the review table. The last system-wide external review was held in 1981. Of the 18 people forming the review team, three were former Director-Generals, and one was to become one. Two others later became high-ranking officials, and both the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations were represented. To top off the external character of the review, the team was chaired by the CGIAR chair.

The real power behind CG agricultural research rests in the hands of the 16 Director-Generals of the International Agricultural Research Centres (IARCs and with the System's Technical Advisory Committee (TAC). During the Period of renewal, seven Director-General posts opened up, as did the TAC Chair. Of these eight positions, only one went to a person from the South (Egypt). Australia and New Zealand won four posts and the rest went to US citizens. During 1995, seven of eight vacant Board positions went to Northerners. It seems that the South's money is welcomed but its leadership is not. During the 1995 Centres Week in Washington an explanation was sought for this trend: The Agricultural Research Centres seem to use the contacts of Board members to approach advanced research organisations in industrialised countries and to secure the funding from certain donors.

Despite the increase in membership from the South, which CGIAR calls now the emerging `South-North Coalition', actual representation of the South in IARC Boards declined from 53% in 1991 to 45% in 1995. After NGOs had pointed to these trends, at the Centre's Week, the Oversights Committee, together with the CG secretariat at the World Bank, were asked to handle this problem. In a letter, Ismail Serageldin told Board Chairs and the Centre Directors early this year: `This is a an unfortunate development which merits our serious concern.' He continued, `A crucial feature of the renewal program is that the international community recommend itself to support the CGIAR on the basis that the CGIAR System would reconstitute itself as a fully South-North enterprise. We are moving steadily towards this goal within the membership of the Group. Unless the same trend is reflected across the system, we will be acting contrary to the spirit in which the System sought and regained international support.' It remains to be seen how successful Serageldin will be in responding to donor demands for greater democracy and transparency. For the moment it seems that there is great resistance to such change within the system.

Broadened Partnership

An important part of the renewal program is the widening the partnerships of the CGIAR with other actors in agricultural research. The Group adopted an action plan to strengthen linkages with national agricultural research systems (NARS). CGIAR's Chair, Ismail Serageldin, has also established an Industry Committee and an NGO Committee.

The establishment of the NGO committee led to considerable discussion among NGOs and within the CGIAR. Since many NGOs were calling for a full external review and an immediate restructuring of the CGIAR, eight of the originally ten invitees to the NGO boycotted the first meeting. Many of the NGOs that declined the invitation were concerned that an NGO committee appointed by - and under control of - the CGIAR would help little in provoking the needed change. The Secretariat was left scrambling to put together a five-person "committee", which was later expanded thanks to Ismail Serageldin's efforts.

CGIAR NGO-Committee

Mr. Robert Blake, (Co-Chair), Committee on Agricultural Sustainability for Developing Countries Washington, DC, USA

Ms. Alicia Barcena, (Co-Chair), Earth Council HDQ, San Jose, Costa Rica

Mr. Miguel A. Altieri, University of California, Albany, California, USA

Dr. Kamla Chowdhury, Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development, New Delhi, India

Mr. Berndt Dreesmann, European Association of NGOs for Food Aid and Emergency Aid, The Hague, The Netherlands

Mr. Jeffrey A. McNeely, IUCN The World Conservation Union, Gland, Switzerland

Mr. Jeanot Minila Mfou'ou, Farmers Agricultures & Modernization Network in Africa (FAM Africa), Yaounde, Cameroon

Mr. Didier Pillot, Groupes de Recherches et d'Echanges Technologiques, Paris, France

In its composition, the Committee seeks `a reasonable balance' in terms of geographic coverage (South-North; regional); thematic interests (macro policy issues and farm-level concerns; agricultural and environmental NGOs); gender (perspective; balance on Committee); and outreach capability (to reach global, regional, and national networks of NGOs). The CGIAR states that the NGO Committee should "provide inputs to the CGIAR from a variety of perspectives relating to environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable agricultural development and research." The Committee is to meet at least once a year, to undertake visits to the Centres, to organise workshops and consultation meetings with NGOs and other stakeholders, and to report to the CGIAR at the International Centres Week.

In addition to NGO reservations, there is discontent within the CGIAR about the way Ismail Serageldin hand-picked the members of the NGO Committee. Some CGIAR members and the Oversight Committee have argued for a transition to a more representative committee that has some sort of mandate from the NGO world. This is a welcome move, but it might be driven by a hidden agenda as alredy expressed by a CG member: the hope that if representation is improved, the NGOs that are most hostile towards the CGIAR could be countered and marginalised more easily.

If the setting up of an NGO committee was a response to the NGO request for a `broad consultation process', then it falls along way short of it. The Committee excludes or under-represents NGOs with deep grassroots experience, those who are critical of industrial agriculture in general and the CGIAR in particular, and farmers organisations. What the Committee does serve to do is improve public relations. The cover feature of the May issue of `CGIAR News', the CG's PR bulletin, proudly capitalises on the establishment of the Committee as evidence of its improved relationship with NGOs.

Meanwhile, much less publicity has gone to the new private sector committee, established at the same time to `…facilitate collaboration between the private sector and the CGIAR'. Consisting of 12 company representatives from North and South, this committee went to work without delay. It has established four different working groups which started functioning right away: on biotechnology, IPR and genetic resources policies, mechanisms of interaction, and on different practices in research and research management.

A new research agenda?

CGIAR states that it has `refocused' the research agenda. Some of the major research thrusts now include:

- Increasing productivity and protecting the environment.

- Increasing sustainable yields in low potential areas and intensify production in high potential areas.

- An ecoregional approach and natural resources management

- Collaboration and linkages with other public and private organisations for research and carrying out programmes.

One controversial issue is the `new Green Revolution' which the new vision calls for. This `revolution' is still premised on direct yield increases and not on agroecosystem enhancement, and is also hung up on technological fixes in the form of biotechnology.

Of course it will take time before all these high level discussions trickle down into the research agendas of the individual IARCs. However, for the moment not much seems to have really changed in the research agenda. The ecoregional approach (which made the IARCs paint their work in two tones - `global' and `ecoregional') was already disputed before the renewal. The ecoregional distinctions seem only to confuse IARC agendas and activities. The Swedish donors, in their unusually frank 1994 report on the system, pointed out that: `Although the word anarchy is too strong to describe the situation ... it is an undeniable fact that it is getting more difficult by the day to implement a logical, system-wide structural and programme framework for ecoregional and global research'. They went on further to discuss this confusion, concluding that: `If the on-going discussions about the ecoregional concept result in continued ad hoc initiatives without looking at the whole system, there is a great risk that CGIAR will lose all coherence and co-ordination'.

The emerging picture is one of a research system desperately trying to respond to the new agendas of the 1990s by moving in all kinds of different directions. In all this, however, there is one direction the system continues to ignore: that of increased farmer participation in its research work. No wonder groups advocating this approach are concerned. As Jules Pretty and Robert Chambers have pointed out: `[The ecoregional approach] will draw and hold scientists away from farm-level realities; co-ordination traps scientists in offices and meetings and keeps them away from farmers. Combined with GIS [Geographical Information System], dynamic modelling and other aspects of the computer revolution, the ecoregional approach is liable to raise even higher the ratio of time scientists spend in the company of computers to that spent in the company of farmers. It is perhaps in honest recognition of this that farmer participation is not listed among the organisational principles for the ecoregional approach'.

Another look at the history of the CGIAR research agenda shows that CGIAR is quick to appropriate trendy new words without really changing its research methodologies and paradigms. The language of `sustainability' is an example. The push to include sustainability in CGIAR's program originally came from the powerful Technical Advisory Committee (TAC). For TAC, and most of the rest of the system, the major force behind environmental problems is population growth. Poverty pushes people to have more children, which leads to pressure on the environment as they encroach further into the forests and onto marginal lands, depleting soils, biodiversity and water in their search for survival.

While population growth is undoubtedly a problem in many areas, TAC's assessment is short-sighted and biased. Much of the migration and overexploitation of natural resources is due to people being thrown off their lands as the result of political and economic forces. TAC's conclusions match its inaccurate assessment of the problem: more people needing food coupled with no more available land equals intensification of production. This intensification cannot be met by traditional production systems. The only way to increase yields of the world's major food crops, TAC says, is by replacing the old `closed' systems with `open production systems' (open to external inputs and open to achieving surplus production).

The CGIAR's rationale about sustainability and production is based on wrong assumptions. First is the distinction between `traditional' and `open' production systems that leads IARCs to conclude that traditional approaches do not move, improve, nor innovate. Nothing could be further from the truth. An impressive body of literature has developed over several decades showing the remarkable innovative achievements of traditional systems. IARCs seem to forget that rural innovators, over ten thousand years, have enabled the human population to double ten times. Eight doublings occurred before HYVs were a gleam in the early Green Revolutionist's eyes.

There is no dispute that population pressure is a formidable factor in food security that requires new and greater production efforts. But that humanity in crisis should not discard strategies that have proven consistently effective for technologies that are unproven. Of course science can provide a helping hand. But rather than pushing such traditional systems towards `openness' and replacing them with IARC-concocted models, more sophisticated and inclusive strategies should be considered.

Is `CGIAR News' censoring IARC-DG's?

In January, the German Development News Service (EPI) printed a interview with the Director-General of CIMMYT, Timothy Reves. CGIAR News reprinted parts of the interview in March. However, it (wisely) withheld some of the stronger statements made by Reves. The original German text (italic) reflects much better the traditional style of arguing and thinking, which prevails at the CGIAR even after its renewal: "The world faces the greatest explosion in population it has ever faced : every minute 200 new people line up in the queue for food; the equivalent of a new Mexico City every three months and 100 million every year, at least for the next thirty years. All have to be fed. Enough food in satisfying quality has to be at their disposal, if the world is not to be lost in the chaos of millions of people who have died of hunger."

The underlying thinking seems familiar: that the IARCs' agricultural research will save them.....


New Financing system

The Renewal Process agreed to more advanced financial planning and decision making. The distinction between core and restricted funding will no longer be made, and funders will not be allowed to side-step formal funding channels and establishing `pet' programs with certain IARCs. This is probably the biggest change resulting from the renewal process, which increases the power of the World Bank over the IARCs. Astonishingly, the renewal exercise did not lead to more funds. The total budget in the crisis year of 1994 was US$ 318 million, while the agreed budget for 1996 is at US$ 300 millions. It did, however, stop the downward financial trend and the gloomy atmosphere reigning within CG circles.

Where the Renewal Process will have an impact

The Renewal Process has already made an impact, though perhaps not in the way the rhetoric suggests:

- It was a very good PR move. High level bureaucrats and even some ministers learned about the CGIAR and now probably pay more attention to it. This might eventually make it easier to secure funding.

- It helped to blow away the clouds of financial gloom in 1994. The CGIAR's research agenda was fully funded in 1994, 1995 and 1996 with a consolidated overall budget of roughly US$ 300 million.

- Its timeliness helped the CG position itself into the centre of the current discussion about agriculture, food security and genetic resources conservation. FAO's Global Plan of Action (GPA), which will probably be endorsed in Leipzig in June, sees the CGIAR as one of the major players. Also the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Conference of the Parties COP III, in November in Buenos Aires, will probably agree that the CGIAR has an important role to play in the agricultural genetic resource management. Its `parent agency', the World Bank, is currently positioning itself to play a larger role in agriculture and to become the lead manager for financial and genetic resources important to agriculture. It will probably try to push the CGIAR, which the Bank considers as its own subsidiary body, nearer to the `honey pots' that the Convention generates and to the funds which are likely to be channelled towards FAO's Global Plan of Action.

- Last but not least, the exercise was a big moral boost for the inner circle of the CG and its members. The reassured self-confidence and the ideological strengthening will lead to a more aggressive approach toward sceptical scientists and NGOs.

The call for Rebirth

Even after the CGIAR Renewal Process, the case for rebirth still stands, and GRAIN continues to call for a full consultative process. This process should culminate in a new research agenda oriented towards the World's poor, and aimed at supporting efforts to a true and participatory sustainable agricultural development. The CG must be premised on a series of principles that fully account for a wide vision of agriculture and the full participation of rural communities. These can be summarised into five points which should form the foundations - the minimum requirements - of any new Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research:

* Farmer First: The starting point of international agricultural research must be the wellbeing of the farming community. This means surrendering leadership to farmers through a creative process of dialogue and debate and through their full participation at every level of the research process. In recent years, the CGIAR has tended to drift away from farmers and to define their target group as the urban poor. While there is no doubt that agricultural research must also result in food security in the cities, the only sure route to this is through the empowerment of food producers in the countryside.

* A Wider Vision: A new consultative group must broaden its focus from narrow commoditybased research to more holistic research addressing the wider parameters of food security and livelihood systems. It has to look at agriculture in its entire complexity rather than its simple uniformity. It must put its focus on plant breeding and productivity in the overall context of community management of livelihood systems.

* Diversity: Through its governance structure and in its day to day activities, any new consultative group must involve all institutions and individuals that can provide input from the wider social, political, ecological, and economic context within which research is carried out. Up to now, the CGIAR has tapped only a fraction of the knowledge and experience available to achieve its mission. We need more diversity: in the governance structure of the CG as a whole, as well as in the actual activities of each of the Centres.

* Democracy: Any new consultative group must start out with the full participation of the South. This is as much an issue of human rights -including Indigenous Peoples' Rights and true Farmers' Rights - as it is of effectiveness. This does not require the CGIAR to become a United Nations agency nor to subordinate itself to one, but such options do require fuller discussion. The continuation and strengthening of the informal processes in the present consultative group is welcome, but the doors need to opened wider and meaningfully to governments of the South, farmers' organisations, other NGOs and the private sector.

* Decentralisation: The key to successful international agricultural research in the 21st century will lie in the capacity of farmers, researchers and research systems to collaborate at local, regional, subregional, national levels. The concept of `centres' should not be sacrosanct. A new consultative group must be free to give financial support to initiatives that do not involve centres or where centres do not take the lead responsibility.

These principles, if taken seriously, profoundly affect both the organisational set-up and the research agenda of the CGIAR. It is unlikely that the majority of NGOs or peoples' organisations would support a CGIAR that does not accept and incorporate these principles.



* CGIAR (February 1995), Declaration and Action Program, includes Documents on the High-Level Meeting in Lucerne.

* Documents from the CGIAR-WEB homepage:

* Derek Tribe, (1994) Feeding and Greening the World, Oxon (UK).

* CGIAR, CGIAR News (1/96 and 2/96), Washington DC.

* Biotechnology and Development Monitor (March 1996), Amsterdam.

* Ongoing research by GRAIN and RAFI .

* Personal communication and memos from CGIAR members.

Author: GRAIN
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