by GRAIN | 25 Dec 1998

December 1998


On October 26-30, the movers and shakers behind the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) met in Washington to discuss the results of the Third System Review. Enthusiastically named "Shaping the CGIAR’s Future," the meeting’s purpose was to define the future direction of the international agricultural research machine that was behind the Green Revolution. The picture emerging is one of a research system being pulled in a number of different directions, and its leaders surrendering to the forces of privatisation and new high-tech solutions for the poor.


A review of where the CGIAR is heading was long overdue. A lot has happened in the world since the last one was held 17 years ago. That review resulted in a strengthening of the Green Revolution approach, meaning increased use of agrochemicals, a focus on a small number of commodity crops and reliance on an extremely narrow and vulnerable genetic base. It called for the furthering of industrial agriculture, which had already had a disastrous impact on the environment, the productive base of agriculture, and the situation of small and resource-poor farmers. Still, a full, external review of the CGIAR, if done well, could lead to a much-needed repositioning of an agricultural research system to benefit poor farmers and promote food security.

For this reason, NGOs had been calling for a review for a long time. Back in 1995, when the CGIAR met to ‘renew’ its commitment to agricultural research, they drafted an open letter calling for a ‘rebirth’ rather than a ‘renewal’ of the system. They called for the closing down of the CGIAR as we now know it and rebirthing it based on a new research agenda derived from a full-fledged consultative process at local, national, regional and international levels. NGOs proposed that this reborn CGIAR should be founded on five central principles.

A New CGIAR: Five 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. The 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.


Source: ‘The Green Revolution in the Red’, Seedling, March 1995, pp 16-17


A new mandate: words or action?

The first recommendation the panel come up with is to change the mandate of the CGIAR by introducing poverty eradication as a central goal, and "research leadership, partnerships, capacity building and policy dialogue" as the tools to achieve it. The recognition that you don’t solve the problems of the world’s poor and their farming systems by merely injecting new technology is a welcome one. Too long has the CG assumed that poverty is a logical consequence of low productivity, and vice-versa: that by increasing yields one can eradicate poverty. But how is the CG going to implement this mandate change in its day to day functioning? To be able to do so, it needs a sound understanding of the real causes of poverty and what role agricultural research can play in helping to eradicate it. Who will provide this understanding? The system continues to be dominated by yield increasers and geneticists, and there is not much in the review report that will change that. Unless CG scientists take a radical turn and start building their research on the real needs of local farming communities, tooled with truly participatory methodologies, this mandate change will simply be more lip service for the donors.

The new focus on policy dialogue is welcome. Finally the CG has come to recognise that policy-making at the national and international levels is fundamental for the achievement of food security. But the track record of the CG in policy matters is highly questionable, to say the least. The system has been struggling for almost a decade to figure out its own policy on fundamental questions such as intellectual property rights (IPRs) and defining the status of the germplasm in its own genebanks. IFPRI, the System’s specialised agency on policy research, plays a negligible role in the development of solid agricultural policy advice, and does all it can to keep away from tricky policy questions for the sake of its scientific neutrality. Now the system is proposing to take the lead on policy issues. Recommendations by the review team include training African leaders to take the ‘right’ policy decisions and getting country members of the CG to unify their voices on policy matters under the banner of the CGIAR. It is very had to imagine how a system that has hardly played a role in agricultural policy matters will now be trusted by Third World governments.

Integrated Gene Management?

Perhaps the most innovative contribution of the review report is the launching of a new acronym: IGM, or Integrated Gene Management. ‘We have integrated pest management, integrated crop management, so it is high time for IGM,’ the reviewers must have thought. Under this new banner, the reviewers propose that the CG moves full steam ahead on biotechnology. The simplicity of the argumentation is amazing. There is absolutely no discussion on whether poorer nations have anything to gain from the new biotechnologies. The potential of serious negative environmental, social, and economic impacts of the technology is done away with in a single throwaway line: "In harnessing the gene revolution in pursuit of its mission, the CGIAR must be aware of the risks involved and take all necessary steps to minimise negative effects."

Of course, the flight ahead towards biotechnology comes at a price. Since most biotechnologies are in the hands of transnational corporations with little interest in clients that can’t buy, the system has a splendid new task: "The CGIAR challenge is to create a new form of public-private partnership that will protect intellectual property while bringing the benefit of this research to the poorest nations." The reviewers recommend a high-level meeting is convened with the CEOs of interested multinationals to develop new partnerships. With this, the CG seems to be rushing into the open arms of the corporate world without the slightest notion of whether or how this will benefit the poor. And of course, if the CG is to play with the big boys, it has to adhere to their rules: "Because their future is at stake, the CGIAR and the IARCs have no other choice but to patent the varieties that they have genetically transformed." While less than a year ago, the CGIAR called for a moratorium on IPRs, now without the slightest hesitation, the reviewers are trying to slam shut the doors on a decade of a very controversial debate within the CG. Yet another opportunity has been missed to protect public research from privatisation and to promote community rights.

New acronyms or new ideas?

For the past decade, the CGIAR has been struggling with the question of how to turn an unsustainable top-down Green Revolution into something more adjusted to current concerns about sustainability and participation. It has done so with remarkably little success. Initially, the system tried simply inserting the words "sustainability" and "participation" into their policy documents without changing much else. When the system found itself in a major crisis in the mid-1990s, it launched a new "vision" and promised a new research agenda. The tool to achieve this was a new "eco-regional approach," in which sustainable natural resource management would be key. Excitement was high that eco-regionalisation would help to propel the system into modern times and become more relevant to the worlds poor. Now, at the end of the decade, the review comes to the conclusion that "the original spirit of the eco-regional approach (…) has been diluted’. This, it surmises, is because the system has not moved towards a new research paradigm and governance structure, and has not managed to establish participatory decision-making processes. After ten years of sustainability discussion in the CG, we are back to zero, it seems.

With such a devastating verdict on what was earlier in the decade sold as the major renewing tool for the CGIAR, we might expect some revolutionary recommendations. But no. The panel merely proposes a workshop to review eco-regionalism, and suggests that eco-regional activities be managed by the NARS. Full stop. Having buried another failed attempt to redirect the system towards sustainability, the review panel now proposes to launch the "International Network for Integrated Natural Resource Management." The idea of the network is to link productivity research with natural resource management. This is about as concrete as the idea gets. There is some mention that the IARCs are to be retooled with skills to do this, and that more bottom-up projects should be developed, but that is it.

Transparency or Scaremongering?

The reviewers are concerned that the CG move into genetic engineering could spark off public protest and recommends that there should be transparency in relation to the work the CG is doing in this area. A proposed co-ordinating centre ‘should continuously provide unbiased information on ongoing research and its potential benefits and risks.’ The idea is very laudable, were it not for the fact that the model of how to do so comes from the Swiss referendum on genetic engineering. In June, the Swiss public voted on an NGO driven proposal to ban genetic engineering from the country. The Swiss based multinationals took the challenge as a life or death fight. They spent million of francs in advertising campaigns, using scaremongering techniques in the style of: if you vote against genetic engineering you will be responsible for more people dying of cancer in Switzerland and more people dying of hunger in the Third World. As a result, the scared Swiss rejected the proposal (see Seedling, March 1998, p 12).

The CGIAR reviewers, however, take this as a prime example of how to go about transparency: ‘The value of information empowerment of the public in matters relating to GMOs is evident in the result of the referendum carried out in Switzerland on 5 June 1998, in which all the Cantons and more than 66 percent of the voters approved continued research and testing in the area of recombinant DNA technology, because of the efforts of researchers to convey credible information to the public. If the Swiss scare-the-hell-out-of-them approach is the example the CG sets itself to provide "unbiased information" about genetic engineering, we are into an interesting exercise.

The lack of any serious attempt to develop natural resource management in the CG is scandalous. Just as the reviewers are barely able to conceal their enthusiasm for the gene revolution, they are equally disinterested in the more complex world of on-farm sustainability and resource management. Their chapter on these questions reads like a textbook on natural resource management, tries to list what the CG already does in this area (which is embarrassingly little), and is totally void of any attempt to develop this work further.

Africa again

The same picture emerges when the reviewers talk about Africa. They recommend a renewed focus on Africa to bring a greener-than-ever revolution to the continent. The panel reports that the Green Revolution has largely bypassed African farmers, despite the fact that the CGIAR claims to spend 40% of its resources on them. It now proposes to spend an even larger share of the CG resources on this continent, but forgets to ask why the CG efforts in the past have not worked. One does not need to be an expert to conclude that the CG failures in Africa have been because of its lack of understanding of low external input local farming systems and farmers needs. Africa is the first priority for the CG to radically turn away from its ivory tower approach and go ‘farmer first’. The review report does talk about the need for "bottom-up, participatory research focusing on farmers’ needs," but fails to explain how the CG should go about that. Instead, it proposes a major ‘Lab to Land Program’, "to take the benefits of the best available technologies to farmers." What is really needed is a ‘Land to Lab Program’ to integrate farmers’ knowledge into scientists approaches.

Avoiding the future

With "Shaping the CGIAR’s future" on the table in Washington, the CGIAR stakeholders did little more than avoid the future. Although a number of the most outrageous recommendations of the review report (such as the pro-patent policy and the creation of a Superboard to govern the system) met with fierce resistance from the donors, overall the report and its recommendations remained surprisingly intact. The CGIAR seems to continue its enthusiastic moves to orient its work towards biotechnology and the private sector, cushioning this with empty talk about natural resource management and farmer participation. Despite all the politically correct rhetoric, this is likely to move CG scientists – and the system as a whole -- further away from local farming reality and the CG’s mandate to promote food security.

The challenge of the external review was to put the CGIAR on the right track into the next century. While an increasing number of development agencies, NGOs and research institutions are making headway with truly participatory approaches to agricultural development, the CG is set firmly on moving in the other direction. While a totally new agronomy, focusing on agro-ecology and natural resource management on the basis of farmer knowledge, is gaining currency in many circles, the CG is looking towards the hyped-up promises of genetic engineering. Interestingly, the Review Report does call upon the CG to help provide for "a functional base for a new agronomy." Those of us that had expected to find this call in the section on natural resource management and participatory research, were in for a surprise. The CG’s call for a new agronomy is in the biotech section of the report, and consists of furthering genetic manipulation to confer "maximum added value to seeds." The ‘miracle seeds’ of the early days of the Green Revolution are back. The external review is definitely a missed opportunity for the CG to come to terms with a new reality.


Main sources:

• CGIAR (1998), Third System Review of the CGIAR, CGIAR System Review Secretariat, Washington DC.

• GRAIN (1996), ‘CGIAR Renewal: Beyond Catchy Wording’, Seedling, June 1996.

• GRAIN (1995), ‘The Green Revolution in the Red’, Seedling, March 1995.

• GRAIN (1994), ‘A System in Crisis’, Seedling, July 1994.

• The Ecologist/GRAIN/RAFI (1996), Agricultural Research for Whom? The Ecologist, November/December 1996.

• RAFI (1998) ‘Frustrated Harvest.’ RAFI Translator, October 1998.

Author: GRAIN
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