Another Green Revolution

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

WHOEVER GAVE the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research its bland, unwieldy name clearly lacked a sense of drama. But the seemingly mundane CGIAR, as it is sometimes called, has played a quietly astonishing role in recent world history. A consortium of internationally funded and staffed crop-research centers scattered around the world, CGIAR was a critical institution of the Green Revolution -- the innovations in high-yield, disease-resistant strains of rice, potatoes and other staples that transformed farming in the developing world and probably saved tens of millions of lives.

CGIAR is still in business. But it and other agricultural research and development efforts have, to some extent, been victimized by their own success. Over the past two decades or so, as abundant food supplies brought down prices and reduced the incentive to invest in further expanding yields, the developed nations' support for developing-world agriculture has waned. The United States, which provided start-up money for CGIAR in 1971 (along with the World Bank and the Rockefeller Foundation), gave the organization just $22.5 million for basic research in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2007. This was about $4 million less than it gave in fiscal 2000, without adjusting for inflation.

Now, with food prices rising around the world, the need for crop science is as great as it has ever been. The end of cheap food means millions are threatened with hunger. But higher prices also create an opportunity for poor farmers in Africa and elsewhere to make a decent income if they can boost production. Hence the need for a second Green Revolution, one in which CGIAR could again play an important role. As of early this year, however, the United States was about to slash its support for basic research almost to nothing, thanks largely to earmarks in the U.S. Agency for International Development's budget that crowded out all but a few congressionally dictated programs. AID has since scrambled to find $18.5 million for this year, and there may be a few million more in the supplemental appropriations bill that is before the Senate after having been approved by the House. But this is no way to fund a sustained approach. In fighting hunger, few investments have paid bigger dividends than basic crop research. The United States needs a substantial, renewed commitment to that worthy effort.

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