Budget cuts jeopardize discovery of better seeds

The industrial nations have cut back contributions to agricultural research right at a time when it is most needed

AS the world's population balloons to an estimated 10 billion in the year 2050, experts warn that a major increase in food production is needed to avert serious famine. Yet the per capita output of grains in developing countries is slowing down. The developing world faces the greatest danger of food shortages. Developing countries will gain an average of 86 million people each year from now until 2050. Demand for food in these countries is projected to more than double by 2025, and by 50 percent more by 2050.

Already, more than 700 million people in those countries are malnourished, according to estimates by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO).

The key to increasing crop yields and enabling the world to meet its needs for food in the 21st century is agricultural research, according to experts. But the world's only major system for agricultural research, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), is being crippled by a lack of financing, with funding cutbacks of 21 percent in real terms since 1992, says Michigan State University president M. Peter McPherson, a member of the Action Group on Food Security, which issued the report in April.

``The funding [for CGIAR] has been cut back so substantially ... it becomes questionable whether the basic [research] requirements can be met,'' Mr. McPherson says. As a result, ``we don't have the crops, the various strains of grains to achieve the yields necessary'' to feed the growing populations of the developing world, he says.

Budget constraints in the United States and European countries have led major donors to curtail financing for CGIAR. The largest donor, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), slashed contributions by $6.5 million in 1993 and by an estimated $13 million this year. It is considering a further cut of $10 million in 1995. ``The downward spiral of aid for agricultural development is self-defeating, even perilous,'' the report warns.

The funding crisis has forced the 18 international research centers under CGIAR to lay off 10 percent of its senior scientists and nearly 20 percent of their local staffs, including laboratory workers, over the last two years.

``Major chunks of programs have been cut out in all of the centers,'' says Alexander Von Der Osten, executive secretary of CGIAR, which has its administrative headquarters in Washington. Hardest hit have been the five centers that research basic food crops in the Philippines (rice), Mexico (wheat, maize), India (sorghum, millet), Peru (potato), and Syria (wheat, barley).

The funding cuts threaten to delay a particularly promising line of research at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Banos, the Philippines, where scientists are developing an irrigated rice plant that raises yield potential by 50 percent in the tropics. Targeted for release by the year 2000, the new rice plant reportedly would produce enough additional grain to feed 400 million people.

A recent initiative by the World Bank, however, aims to rescue CGIAR from possible collapse. The bank, which became the largest CGIAR donor following the drop in USAID contributions, is considering boosting its contribution to $40 million in 1994 (from $37.8 million in 1993) and in coming years.

Equally important, the bank is taking the lead in strengthening the management of CGIAR, which has been highly decentralized since its creation in 1972. In May, under the bank's guidance, a 15-member steering committee was set up to help streamline decision-making by CGIAR's 40 donors, says Mr. Von Der Osten.

Supporters of CGIAR are hopeful that these restructuring efforts, along with a joint appeal by the World Bank and other international organizations for the industrialized nations to restore and even increase contributions, will succeed in restoring funding to previous levels next year.

``We think we've got a good case,'' McPherson says.

From now until 1998, CGIAR aims to concentrate annual resources of some $250 million in raising the productivity of basic food commodities such as grains, promoting sustainable agriculture, training scientists in developing countries, and conserving plant genetic resources.

Development officials and scientists stress both the urgency and importance of providing long-term continuity for agricultural research. ``The poor people of the world can't wait,'' says Von Der Osten.

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