by GRAIN | 25 Jul 1994


Many people may not realise that behind the increases in food production — and all its accompanying environmental and socio-economic problems — achieved in many areas of the world over the past thirty years, lies a “system”. The “system” is a rather invisible network of international scientific research institutes, supported and controlled by its financial donors in the North. Thirty years after the launch of the Green Revolution, the “system” which was ostensibly set up to “feed the world” is mired in a deep and decisive crisis. One for which all minds need to be tapped to find a creative and bold solution.


Five years ago, the Australian government published a glossy folder about the international agricultural research system: how it is set up, all the advances it is making, it's impact on our daily lives and the great future before it. Its title? An Act of Faith: Research Helps Feed the Hungry. This title explains pretty much what international agricultural research is all about: faith in scientific research to solve the world food problem. Within the rather amorphous field of scientists busily working towards this aim there is a central and powerful hub: the so-called CGIAR system. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research is an informal club of 41 donors financing a network of 18 prestigious International Agricultural Research Centres (IARCs).

From family planning to farmer planning

The roots of this system go back to the 1950s and, more precisely, the board room of the Rockefeller Foundation. A philanthropic American agency with strong links to the US government and its foreign policy advisors, the Rockefeller Foundation has been dedicated to the business of fighting poverty through new technology. Largely engaged in the health sector after World War II, the Foundation's fight against “the population bomb” focused on the development and massive distribution of contraceptives in the Third World. When in the late 1950s they decided to fight “the food problem”, this time the solution was to be the development and wide dissemination of “high yielding” crop seeds. The Rockefeller view held that science could eradicate hunger. As they saw it, knowledge, and its technological application, had to overcome the ignorance and lethargy of the “backward” rural sectors of society, especially in the Third World. In their perspective, technology was objective, socially-neutral, and could provide powerful blanket solutions to what was perceived as a single, undifferentiated problem: raising low yields to anticipate and prevent social disruption in the poor countries of the South, and integrate agrarian societies into the global market economy.

The Foundation first exercised this “act of faith” to feed the hungry in one country, Mexico, where in 1941 it placed scientists from Cornell University to raise the yield of wheat production in what the American government perceived as its “backyard”. The trick? A dwarfing gene to make shorter plants that, given the right inputs, produce more grain. Excited by the potential, the Foundation turned its eyes to Asia, a priority region at the time due to the population issue, the spread of communism, and the vast market the region could eventually represent for US business. After bringing the Mexican wheat strains to the region, in 1960 the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations established together the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, to repeat the wheat success story with rice and this time at the global level. IRRI was to be the prototype international agricultural research centre: a centre of apolitical scientific excellence, supported by the rich, churning out new technologies to improve food production for the poor.

Within a few years, IRRI scientists came up with a promising cross of two rice varieties into “IR8", which under the conditions of high-tech farming (use of chemical fertilisers, controlled irrigation and pesticides) offered a quantum leap in yields. IR8, dubbed ”miracle rice", set in motion the Green Revolution. Encouraged, the Rockefeller Foundation set up three other international centres: CIMMYT for wheat and maize in Mexico, CIAT for beans, cassava, rice and forages in Colombia and IITA for maize, cassava, cowpea, rice and others in Nigeria. The system has expanded tremendously since then (see table).

Birth of the CG

At the turn of the 1970s, the Foundation — keeping with its tradition of “pump priming” — tried to get governmental donors involved in supporting this subtle but powerful research adventure. In 1971, the CGIAR was created. As a “system”, the CGIAR enterprise has several components. The Consultative Group itself is an informal coalition of donors (governments, intergovernmental agencies and private foundations) co-sponsored by the World Bank, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and UN Development Programme. When it was set up, there were 15 donors providing $20 million for four international centres. Today, there are 41 donors contributing nearly $300 million to 18 International Agricultural Research Centres (IARCs), which form the operational arm of the system. While the CGIAR as an informal club has no legal identity, statutes or by-laws, each of the IARCs is an autonomous institute with its own Board of Directors. Each member of the CG allocates its annual contribution to the IARC(s) of its choice, while the World Bank fills the gap between the approved system-wide budget and that year's donor pledges. The Group has a small permanent secretariat in the World Bank, which provides its chairmanship through one of the World Bank's vice-presidents. The CG also has a powerful Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) which provides recommendations on research programmes and priorities, monitors performance of the system through programm and budget reviews, and supervises periodic reviews of the CG-supported centres.

The CGIAR enterprise functions as a “system” in as much as three key rules underpin its integrity: informality among the donors and their absolute sovereignty; World Bank money to fill funding gaps each year; and autonomy of the individual IARCs. Of course, IARC autonomy is tempered by dependency on the CG for funding, and the CG's decisions on research priorities and resource allocation are largely driven by TAC.

Since it was set up, the CG system has changed in a number of ways and remained generally immobile in others. The changes affect its membership and field of operation. From a starting set of four IARCs focusing on plant breeding of a few staple crops the system has taken on further crops and expanded into livestock production and health, forestry and agroforestry, fishery, food policy, research and irrigation management and global plant genetic resources conservation. Where it hasn 't changed much since the early days is the CG system's pervading beliefs (that neutral technology can solve political problems) and research paradigms (transfer of technology from international scientist to national programme to farmer).

The scorecard

Whatever one may think of the Green Revolution, the CGIAR has probably produced two major impacts. The first is in the field of breeding. Aside from building up major germplasm collections of their priority crops, plant varieties developed at the IARCs underpin an important part of world agriculture today, whether they are grown directly by farmers or have channelled through national agricultural systems for further fine-tuning. This international breeding system has been so “effective” that, contrary to stated intentions, the North benefits tremendously from it (see box). The result of the world's new dependency on CG germplasm is, of course, a mixed bag. Increase yields, yes, but for whom, for how long, and at what environmental costs? New varieties, yes, but only by losing thousands of traditional ones. Wider movements and distribution of the global gene pool, but amongst whom?

The second area of major impact has been the sheer influence of the CGIAR on agricultural research worldwide. Despite its budget (the CG accounts for less than 4% of public agricultural research spending worldwide while the US biotech industry spends each year over twice the CG budget on crop research), the CGIAR and its IARCs have impacted substantially in garnering support for otherwise unglamourous agricultural research, heavily directing how that research is done and training national scientists. Somewhere between 20,000 and 45,000 Third World agricultural scientists have done part of their training at the IARCs since 1962. Tremendous amounts of basic and improved germplasm has been circulated through the system. Between the prestige associated with the international Centres and their massive outreach efforts towards the national level, the IARCs are extremely powerful in orienting how, to what end and embodying which values agricultural science is done today.

By the late 1970s, criticism of the CGIAR's Green Revolution came to a head. Between academic studies and direct reports from the field, the complaints and data poured forth against the new seeds, the new technology and the new production systems developed by the IARCs to “modernise” agriculture and feed the growing population. The critiques touched on: the chemical bias of the high-response varieties, which needed artificial fertiliser and pesticides to deliver the promised yield; the crop bias towards a few staples of international relevance; the big farmer bias of trickle-down development doctrine; the monoculture bias against indigenous farming systems; and the political bias against farmer and Third World authority within the system. The CG's response, and further analysis on these issues, has never put the debate to a close.

Contours of crisis

By the mid-1980s, the CGIAR got itself into a process of self-questioning and attempted adjustment which it may never get out of. If the 1950s was a time of Malthusian nightmares, fears of communist plots and euphoria over technological breakthroughs (remember Sputnik?), the 1980s was the Brundtland Commission report, an explosion of concern for the environment, negative attitudes towards high technology (eg. nuclear energy) and the sheer discovery of “the victims of development”, in particular linked to the World Bank and IMF. The CGIAR's crisis is a crisis of confidence and it has everything to do with earlier critiques of the Green Revolution and the CG's capacity or incapacity to redress the problems generated through its “act of faith”.

The new pressures bearing down on the system are both internal and external, although the CG has so far been tending mainly to the internal ones. Internal pressures facing the CG include: a flattening out of funding since the early 1980s and a resolute stagnation since the late 1980s; a shift in donor concern toward sustainability, equity, and natural resource management; and no or little impact in Sub-Saharan Africa, where nearly half the CG's budget was going. By contrast, the CG seems to have awkwardly lagged behind in responding to external pressures such as: the need for transparency and accountability to the public; the need to democratise participation in and governance of the system; the need to address the demise of public research against the increasingly important role of the private sector; and an adequate response to the fundamental critiques of the Green Revolution.

The drop in donor support has been accompanied by new interrogations, new imperatives and some fairly weak soul-searching on the part of CG members. We have bundled the elements of the crisis into four categories.

* The Sustainability Crisis

The row during recent years about whether development or agriculture is “sustainable” or not hasn 't bypassed the CGIAR. In 1985, the CG took this issue up and its conclusion was pretty much a non-response. As a system, the CGIAR contends that sustainability has always been on its agenda and research to promote sustainable agriculture is what it has been doing all along. To press the point, they even reformulated their “mission statement” to this end.

What is “sustainability” in CG-speak? Whoever you talk to, you will never find a consensus definition within their ranks. According to TAC, their authority on technical issues, the main threat to sustainability in agriculture is population pressure which is destroying natural resources. Thus, their solution to the crisis is: higher yields to develop agricultural surpluses. In this perspective, the self-appointed “task” of the CGIAR is to develop alternatives to traditional production systems. In other words, more of the same technology and a continuing conviction that farmers ' practices and indigenous resources (such as local varieties) have to be replaced, not built upon and improved. The faith that science can achieve social change that politics is too slow to produce remains intact. Such an undressed concept of sustainability that focuses strictly on environmental concerns and is void of any political and socio-economical dimensions, allows the system to conclude that a continuation of more of the same is necessary.

* The Ag/Environment Crisis

Perhaps one of the hottest issues of conflict and debate within the CGIAR system over the past few years has been what to do with the apparent conflict between agriculture and the environment. The question from the CGIAR's research angle is best formulated by a Swedish panel report which was recently concluded to determine or condition Sweden's continued support to the CG: “Basically, it has been about whether natural resource research within the CGIAR should be a separate line of research on soils, water, trees, forests and biodiversity outside of agricultural production systems, or an integrated research approach aiming at achieving production improvements through sustainable use of the natural resource base within the agricultural production systems.” (Emphasis in original.) As the Swedes regretfully state, the first view is the dominant one in the CG system and the results are already showing up in the Centres ' current budgets and work programmes, where natural resource management (including germplasm conservation) is totally separate from production systems.

A number of donors and TAC have been waving the words “natural resource management” to get the IARCS to do more work to protect and utilise the natural resource base of agriculture. This means conservation of genetic diversity (which is an “up” value right now) but also resource management approaches to production systems as a whole. In other words, “let's use the environment and stop killing it”. On the other hand, the individual IARCs seem to be fighting back saying their job is not to protect the environment but to feed people. First the farmers were encouraged to go for the Green Revolution technology, and when they massively did they are now being told that they destroy the environment. Nowhere in the entire debate does the system point to itself as being responsible for the environmental mess it got Third World agriculture into, nor does it come with a comprehensive analysis on what to do about it. The CG's response to the Ag/Environment dilemma is pretty much similar to the one of the World Bank: first, huge environmentally destructive projects are set in motion, and later some extra money is thrown at them to repair the damage.

* The Poverty/Equity Crisis

Alleviating poverty is, ultimately, the raison d 'être of the CGIAR and figures prominently in the system's mission statement. Also, discussions on how to promote equity repeatedly come back in CG circles. However, just how to do this through agricultural research is far from clear.

The CG system has rejected the critique that their technology benefits the rich at the expense of the poor, and “low-income people” are now the explicit targets of CG research. This means that the rural poor are supposed to get higher incomes and the urban poor are supposed to get cheaper food. TAC employs an incredibly complex statistical analysis to identify research priorities to meet this end. However, the problem does not lie with the statistical analysis, it lies with the assumptions behind it. Poverty and equity are political problems, and the CG continues to believe that technological answers will solve them. This is very clear with the way the equity question is dealt with. As with sustainability, the CGIAR people take a fairly narrow view of equity issues. For them, equity is a matter of gender and income distribution, full stop. To be fair, this has brought TAC to finally recognise that there are social biases embedded in technology, although many scientists in the system still don 't see this. But what this implies for the public policies and power structures that are the root cause of inequity is a mystery. There have been some calls to increase socio-economic and policy research within the CG centres, but much of this is on paper only.

The CGIAR's limit to dealing with the broader aspects of equity and poverty — including power relations within and related to the CGIAR system — is a fundamental one, historically rooted in the ideology of the CG founders. The people who put the CGIAR in place were convinced that science is superior to politics. Rather than wait around for political leaders and conscious citizens to agree on better distribution systems which would relieve poverty and inequity, science has to produce more food and generate income through better technology. This is what the CG was set up for, and it is still the main background to its work. Thus it is not surprising that a recent study on the impact of the CG system, sponsored in part by a major donor of that system (Ravnborg, 1992, see “sources” at the end of this article), comes to the following conclusion: “It is still an open question whether CGIAR research can contribute to the alleviation of poverty or inequity. Very little is known about the poor and very little is done to direct CGIAR research to meet the needs and resource constraints of the poor. Unless efforts are strengthened in these respects, the poverty focus claimed for CGIAR research will rapidly fade away.”

* The Internal Crises

Since the past ten years, the CG system has been fraught with internal convulsions and existential difficulties. The most evident one is the drop in funding, which is straining the daily work of the centres and creating jealousies among them. The pressure on the funds comes from two trends: shrinking aid budgets in most industrialised countries and the fact that donors are raising questions on how effective the system has been in addressing their concerns. USAID is threatening to cut 40% of its support to the CGIAR in 1995 and CIDA Canada is also pondering cuts. Many governments are thinking twice these days about whether the CG is going in the right direction and how to improve it. There are obviously conflicts between donors and TAC on priorities, approaches and even the long term vision of international agricultural research in general.

All of this means that the traditional cosy consensus way of moving the work forward is increasingly constrained, and the system as a whole is losing a sense of direction and coherence. More and more the financial donors tie their funding to those specific project which they like most. The Swedes want more focus on Africa, the Swiss push for on-farm work, the Rockefeller Foundations likes biotechnology.... In their push to get the pet projects moving, a whole set of new Centres were pulled into the network in the past few years: ICLARM to work on fish, ICRAF and CIFOR to do something on forests, IIMI to look into irrigation. And all of this happened in a period where it was already becoming painfully clear that the funding was drying up and new priorities weren 't agreed to yet. Some would call it irresponsible planning, others like to see it as a logical consequence of a donor driven setup.

Another problem sticking the ribs of the CG system is its relations with NARS (National Agricultural Research Systems). The Rockefeller “pump-priming” vision of international agricultural research centres was one of institutes that would probably phase out in time. They were to be set up to strengthen national programmes by working intimately with them, to the point that IARCs may no longer be necessary or play a much more subtle role. Thirty years later, however, many NARS are getting weaker and weaker, not stronger. While this is due to factors which are partly outside the control of the CG, it is a major existential problem for the system. In many cases the relationship between NARS and individual centres is one of dependency, love/hate or competition, rather than partnership. Currently, the CG is debating whether to set up “ecoregional mechanisms” to strengthen cooperation, but it remains to be seen what comes out of this, yet another, new concept to keep the whole thing alive.

Finally, a pervading internal problem of the system is that it is reaching its limits in its capacity to take policy decisions. The very informality of the CG system — generally seen as its major strength — seems to inhibit the formulation of coherent policy lines. Discussions on the CG's position towards intellectual property rights has brought this problem to the front (see previous article). Other policy issues like how biotechnology is put to work at the IARCs and what biosafety rules will govern such research are, again, left to vague generalities that assure no one. It has become painfully clear that the CG has no institutional identity; no one is answerable for the system, aside from the Boards of the individual IARCs. Because there is hardly a decision-making structure to speak of within the CG, the group as a whole can only make vague statements on policy issues. In most cases this means that it is up to the individual IARCs to do so, with often contradictory results.

Will they open up

The grumblings in the corridors and in the fields about the future for international agricultural research and the CGIAR are growing louder by the day. Probably every one agrees that there is a role for international agricultural research to help strengthen local farming systems. There are two overriding problems that have to be tackled creatively and aggressively. The first one is the way this research should be carried out and rethinking the role of farmers and scientists in this endeavour. In the CG structure, farmers are completely out of the picture and other people are always deciding on priorities for them. This is not only unacceptable but it also doesn 't make sense. We need new paradigms and different structures to allow for farmer participation in the research effort, in order to empower people rather than relegate them to the role of passive consumers or “beneficiaries” of someone else's science. This point is equally — if not more — valid for the NARS.

The second problem is who controls international agricultural research. The CGIAR is currently unaccountable to anyone but its 40 financial donors. The world food supply, and the livelihoods of countless rural and urban people, is simply too important to leave to such a shady and definitely biased operation. Any form of international agricultural research should, by definition, be linked to the international community in order to assert and manage collective responsibility for it. The North's domination of a CG which is radically transforming the lives and opportunities of peoples in the South has to be challenged and better structures imagined. There is a definite need for a collective consultative effort — with full participation of all sectors, including farmers and their organisations — if the international agricultural research system is to survive in some form or another.


Anderson, Robert S., “The Origins of the International Rice Research Institute”, in Minerva, Vol. XXIX, 1991, pp. 61-89.

Lundgren, Björn et al., Swedish Support to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR): A Quinquennial Review 1987-1992, SAREC Documentation, Evaluations 1994:1, Stockholm, 1994, 204 pp., ISSN 0283-5290.

Ravnborg, Helle Munk, The CGIAR in Transition: Implications for the Poor, Sustainability and the National Agricultural Research Systems, Agricultural Administration (Research and Extension) Network, Network Paper 31, Centre for Development Research (Copenhagen) & Overseas Development Institute (London), ODI, London, June 1992, 87 pp.

Author: GRAIN