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Agricultural Research:
CGIAR turns to outsourcing
(Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research)

by Devinder Sharma
New Delhi, India

Devinder Sharma.
Devinder Sharma. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), once the harbinger of green revolution that swept through parts of Asia and Latin America in the early 1970s and 1980s, is in an advanced stage of decay. In a desperate effort to survive against all odds, the 16 international agricultural research centers that operate under the aegis of CGIAR, have therefore donned a new role - to serve as an agricultural research outsource for the multinational corporations.

It all began when the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) took to research on 'golden rice' - the rice that contains the gene that makes available a miniscule proportion of Vitamin A. That the research project was in reality an outsourcing activity that CG undertook becomes apparent when one finds that the administrative control of the inter-governmental 'golden rice' research project is being manned by a former Monsanto executive. Strange that the CGIAR, which claims to have more than 8,500 scientists and scientific staff on roll, had to seek the help of the biotech giant, Monsanto, for managing the 'golden rice' research project!

To make the entire exercise look more legitimate, the CGIAR first changed its mandate from being a publicly funded research body to a "strategic alliance of 63 countries, international and regional organizations and private foundations supporting international agricultural research Centers that work with national agricultural research systems, the private sector and civil society". In short, a cleverly worded explanation for the deviation from the original mandate to essentially serve as an outsourcing research base for the private companies. With Syngenta Foundation on board, the CGIAR cleared the deck for 'increasing' participation from the private sector. The civil society has already frozen its association with the CGIAR, and therefore the strategic alliance remains restricted to the private sector.

Science Council

The Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) was then reconstituted as Science Council - the apex advisory body that provides strategic scientific advice to the world's largest publicly (and now privately) funded agricultural research organization. The ten-member Council is headed by Dr Per Pinstrup-Andersen, a former director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and a known supporter of the biotech industry. Take a look at the composition of the Science Council, the real motive and the scientific design of the CGIAR becomes crystal clear. First, except for Dr V.L.Chopra from India (the only other person from a developing country is the expatriate head of the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology, Kenya), the entire representation is from the rich and industrialized countries.

It isn't something that CGIAR is bothered about. Its faith and confidence in WMD - no, I am not talking of the weapons of mass destruction - but an equally pernicious discrimination through 'white male dominance' has been an unquestioned norm. It will be interesting to see the list of the chairs as well as director generals of the 16 international agricultural research centers so far and you will see that there is an overwhelming bias in favour of the white male - obviously from the industrialized countries. Merit has never been the main criteria, what constitutes 'eminence' of these scientists is the country they come from. The bigger the donor, more are the heads of the institutes from that particular country. The Science Council is no exception. Its members have been picked up not on scientific excellence but from where they come from, with an additional essential qualification - to be a blind supporter of the cutting-edge science, the controversial technology of genetic engineering.

No wonder, after the initial thrust through the dwarf wheat and rice varieties, CGIAR's research has failed to meet its underlying objectives of reducing poverty, improving food security and nutrition, and alleviate pressures on fragile natural resources. It is not aimed anymore at addressing the founding principles and research obligations. If the newly constituted Science Council is an indication, the entire exercise is to see how the CGIAR research centers, with an outlay of US $ 400 million, can be transformed to serve the interests of the biotechnology industry. We will see more and more scientific collaborations in the days ahead that will unabashedly be headed (or is it deputation?) by ex-employees of the biotechnology giants.

For the poor and marginalized farmers in the developing world, the CGIAR ceases to exist. Its research mandate, that keeps on changing periodically, is now aimed at seeing what benefits the industry. Whether it is water or climate change, the focus is not because of the crisis that afflicts the developing world but comes as a direction from private companies. Although the CGIAR research mandate talks of social and economic factors that determine how farmers and communities manage natural resources, it only receives lip-sympathy. Genetic engineering, coupled with the economic reforms that the World Bank is spearheading, therefore becomes the thrust of the CGIAR's renewed research agenda.

The real objective is to see how the economic reforms that have been spelled out by the World Bank are implemented. Ian Johnson, World Bank Vice President, Sustainable Development, and also chairman of CGIAR, will go down in history as the person responsible for taking this once-magnificent research organization virtually into the dumps. Even within the World Bank there has been enough criticism of his style of functioning (one report brings it out loudly) but who cares. Ian Johnson is only implementing the Bank's agenda of pushing the farmers in developing countries out of agriculture so as to pave the way for agribusiness industry. As long as the Bank is happy, all criticism has to be ignored.

Farmer Suicides

Shockingly, the biggest crisis that threatens the very survival of farming systems the world over is the increasing number of suicides by farmers. Whether it is the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan, India or the Philippines, an increasing number of farmers are taking the fatal route to escape the humiliation that comes with the agricultural equation going wrong. The CGIAR, as well as the land grant system of agricultural research, is essentially responsible for fostering the faulty technology and the supporting farming systems. And yet, at no stage is the CGIAR even remotely concerned at the plight of the farmers worldwide. It has never undertaken any research to understand the cause and reason behind it, and to take corrective measures.

The reason is obvious. CGIAR is in the hands of people who are not in touch with the ground realities even through a remote control. Whether it is the Executive Council, Science Council, or the CGIAR System Office, the fact remains that the so-called distinguished members only hobnob with the industry and have rarely spent any time with the farmers. Their understanding of the developing country farmers comes from the glossy publications that CGIAR periodically produces. They are only following the industry prescription for the sustainability crisis that afflicts agriculture. That's all they know about.

Since the mandate is shifting to help the agribusiness industry, financial support is coming from unexpected quarters. Bill Gates first announced US $ 25 million for the bio-fortification project. The British DFID (Department for International Development) will provide an additional £30 million over the next 3 years. It has also committing £5 million over 3 years to the new African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), which delivers affordable technology (read genetic engineering) to African farmers. As if this is not enough, the government of India has also reportedly agreed to increase its contribution to the CG system, from half a million dollar to 2 million dollars. Ironically, the increased contribution comes at a time when most of the Indian agricultural universities are finding it difficult to provide even monthly salaries to its scientific staff.

We have heard repeatedly that because of the environment-friendly technologies developed by CG system, anything between 230 and 340 million hectares of land has been 'saved' from cultivation worldwide. It will be much interesting to now know how much of cultivable lands had been rendered infertile and left gasping for a lungful of air through the imposition of the green revolution technologies. How much of environmental pollution and contamination of the food chain has come about from the chemical input-based farming systems and how much is the resulting human and environmental costs.

Such an analysis will never be done and for obvious reasons. Mid-term correction is only an economic activity that the Finance Ministers undertake during the course of the fiscal year. Agricultural scientists are not supposed to undertake a mid-term correction, and therefore are not held accountable for the serious and severe lapses and damages that the technologies bring to the environment and to human and animal health. The Science Council is not equipped and qualified to undertake the cost-benefit analysis so as to draw a balance sheet. Its mandate is only to promote genetic engineering, to see how the profits of the private companies can be assured of course in the name of eradicating poverty and hunger.

"Food security" and sustainable farming systems of the world's estimated three billion farmers has therefore been very conveniently sacrificed for ensuring 'profit security' of a handful of private companies. This brings to fore the basic question: is CGIAR relevant in modern times? If not, then why can't the CG system be dismantled (as the founding fathers wanted) and the 16 research centers handed over to the respective governments where they are located? Let the host countries turn them into hotels or planetariums or research institutes depending upon the national priorities and needs. At least, it will save hundreds of millions of dollars from public exchequers being invested for unwanted agricultural research outsourcing.

Published in In Motion Magazine May 9, 2004

About the author: Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst. Among his works are GATT to WTO: Seeds of Despair and In the Famine Trap. Responses can be emailed to:

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