Ismail Serageldin

Speeches


Setting the New Agenda for Agricultural Research

 26/08/1996

1. Introduction

 

The world is facing a crisis. We must promote sustainable agriculture for food security in the developing world. We must rise to the triple challenge of poverty reduction, food security and sound natural resource management. These challenges must be met in a political environment which is a dangerous mix of complacency, fiscal constraints, aid fatigue and fundamental disagreements about the magnitude of the problem and the appropriate paths to its solution.

This conference is thus most timely, and the results of your deliberations could have major impact on international decision-making if you can provide some clear and convincing answers. It is a tall order, but I can think of no more distinguished group to address it.

Luckily, my task at the opening is to help sharpen the questions. The task of finding the answers is up to you, and I look forward to Alex McCalla’s summation at the end of the conference. But my task is not redundant, since asking the right questions, properly framing the debate and sharpening the links between the issues is the appropriate place to start any scientific inquiry.

 

2. The Basic Proposition

 

Let me begin by stating a basic proposition. The world’s basic objectives of poverty reduction, food security and sustainable natural resource management cannot be met unless rural well-being in general, and a prosperous private agriculture for small and medium size holders in particular, are nurtured and improved. Central to improving the productivity and profitability of agriculture are improved technology, appropriate policies and supportive institutions. At the core of technological improvement is agricultural research.

 

3. The Fundamental Challenges

 

Without steady improvement in sustainable productivity growth, the triple challenges of poverty reduction, food security, and sustainable natural resource management cannot be met. Lets review each of these three challenges.

*Vice President, Environmentally Sustainable Development, The World Bank, and Chairman, Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

3.1 The Poverty and Hunger Challenge

The "Green Revolution" staved off the Malthusian shadow of famine in South Asia. Concurrent increases in agricultural productivity have also resulted in a sustained decline in real prices of food. But despite these achievements, rising populations and unequal participation in growth have left 1.3 billion people in the world struggling to survive on less than one dollar a day. About 800 million of them are hungry, undernourished or malnourished. There are over 500 million children under the age of 5 who are not receiving the nutrition they need to fully develop mentally and physically.

Ironically, nearly three-quarters of the poor and hungry live in rural areas where food is produced. These people are concentrated in poor, slow-growing countries, and often in regions with poor agricultural potential. Despite rapid urban growth, the bulk of poverty in the developing world remains rural and will remain so for the next generation. addressing this problem requires concentrated attention to agricultural and rural development in the entire developing world, but especially in slow-growing and food-deficit countries.

3.2 The Food Security Challenge

Everyone agrees that the world’s population will exceed 8 billion people by 2025, an increase of 2.5 billion in the next 30 years. Much, but not all, of the increase will occur in developing country cities where urban populations will more than triple. Most agree that given moderate income growth, food needs in developing countries would more than double, and global food demand could nearly double. The challenge to world agriculture is enormous.

Future increase in food supplies must come primarily from rising biological yields, rather than from area expansion and more irrigation. Why? Because land and water are becoming increasingly scarce. Most new lands brought under cultivation are marginal and ecologically fragile and cannot make up for the land being removed from cultivation each year due to urbanization and land degradation. The sources of water that can be developed cost-effectively for irrigation are nearly exhausted, and irrigation water will increasingly need to be reallocated for municipal and industrial use. Therefore, yields on existing land will need to more than double.

3.3 The Sustainable Natural Resource Management Challenge

Unsustainable agricultural practices are promoted by bad institutional frameworks and policies that severely undervalue natural resources. If yields are to double in the next 30 years, the policy and institutional failures that cause or contribute to the negative environmental impacts of agriculture must be reversed and sustainable production systems developed, encouraged, and applied.

The three major challenges of overcoming poverty and hunger, increasing food production, and halting natural resource degradation require action on a broad and complex rural development front. It is not just a matter of agricultural production, but of widely-shared and sustainable rural growth and development.

 

4. The Challenge to Agricultural Science

 

The challenge ahead can be stated directly and relatively simply but its accomplishment will chart new territory for agricultural science.

The task is to sustainably intensify complex agricultural production systems while preventing damage to natural resources and biodiversity while contributing to the improved welfare of farmers. I submit to you that doubling the yields of complex farming systems in an environmentally positive manner is an enormous challenge that is not going to be easy to meet. Let me give some flavor of why I believe this to be true.

Agricultural science has done a far better job of increasing individual commodity yields, in input intensive monocultures, than it has in improving the productivity of complex farming systems. The use of modern reductionist science has tended to focus on commodity yield rather than the long run sustainability of production systems. Yet for many in the developing world, even that approach has bypassed them. Where it has been applied, e.g. semi-dwarf rices and wheats, it has been in favorable well-watered areas. In many intensive monoculture systems, negative externalities in terms of water quality, loss of biodiversity, chemical pollution and soil degradation threaten their long-run sustainability.

What is required is a systems and interdisciplinary approach to the sustainable improvement of complex systems. While developed country science has lessons to offer developing country colleagues in commodity improvement, it is less clear they are role models for the sustainable intensification of complex systems.

In order to clarify what contribution I can make to the discussions of this conference, it would be pertinent to clarify both my assumptions and the terminology that I am using, starting by defining what kind of agricultural research I am referring to.

 

5. Defining the Scope of Agricultural Research

 

I will limit my remarks to research that is clearly an international public good. Private goods research should be left to the private sector. Private sector leaders will decide on their own the priorities of the research investments that they will make. Clearly, however, policy research to identify and remove price and market distortions that affect their decisions would be a legitimate and important area of public goods research. National agricultural research priorities should also focus on public goods, but must be set by each country, in the light of its own circumstances, which vary tremendously between countries.

Agricultural research here is also intended to include agriculture, forestry, fisheries, livestock, etc. I suggest that we focus on basic food crops, assuming that cash crops per se (e.g. cotton, rubber) are definitely the domain of the private sector.

Research on public goods for agriculture -- broadly defined as I have done here -- is also intended to include policy research, post-harvest technologies and natural resource management aspects of the production process.

Henceforth, when I mention "Agricultural Research" it is in conformity with this definition.

 

6. Establishing the Framework for the Discussion

 

In order to discuss the priorities for agricultural research, we need to settle some basic questions on the parameters of the issues we are addressing. These include:


•Getting the facts right
 
•Stating the problem correctly
 
•Identification of the relevant new technologies
 
•Defining the degrees of uncertainty and risk associated with the research itself as well as with the application of the technologies. 

Let me say a brief word about each.

6.1 Getting the facts right

We should engage in debate on interpretations and theories or postulates, but we should be able to agree on the basic facts, such as the amount of land under cultivation in China, or the deforestation rate in a particular country. Indeed, it is inconceivable that protagonists in the recent public debate on Chinese food production use figures for acreage under cultivation that differ by 30%!

Clearly, new breakthroughs in GIS and computing make it possible to reach more accurate figures on these kinds of questions, and to map site specific ecological socio-economic data at the local and the supra-national levels. This should make it possible to maintain and make available proper relational data bases. This would be a major contribution that scientists can make to the better understanding of the issues and, more importantly, to the monitoring and evaluation of trends by countless researchers and groups.

6.2 Stating the problem correctly

Although food security is a topic of great importance, it still surprising how uni-dimensional much of the debate is. We need to remind the world that the issues are more complex. That it is:

Not just production but also access

Not just output but also process

Not just technology but also policy

Not just global but also national

Not just national but also household

Not just rural but also urban

All of these dimensions make the issues of food security part of a bigger whole where many policies come together to confront the nexus of problems relating population growth, environmental sustainability, poverty reduction, agricultural production, distribution and marketing.

It is not easily reduceable to a single set of equations. Nor is economic efficiency sufficient to provide guidance for the allocation of the exact shares of research resources if we are, for ethical normative reasons focusing on the needs of the destitute, the marginalized, and the hungry. Many of these people are not active participants in the marketplace.

6.3 Identification of the new technologies

The primary responsibility of research is to help provide the new technologies that will enable significant and sustainable intensification of agriculture. These will undoubtedly include the better management of natural resources and the use of integrated pest management techniques. Clearly, also biotechnology is a key area for attention. Yet its promise has remained elusive, and it raises a high level of discomfort among many.

6.4 Defining the degrees of uncertainty and risk

Decision makers and the public are ignorant of the degrees of uncertainty and risk associated with the research itself as well as the application of the technologies. This continues to encourage luddite, anti-scientific public sentiment, and timidity among the decision makers. We need clearer statements by the science community on these issues.

 

7. Some Macro Questions

 

Lets assume that we have agreement on these broad parameters of the discussion, we could then state some broad macro-level questions.

The first of these is how much should the public purse fund in terms of Agricultural Research Vs. competing claims like health research? If we get beyond that by a relatively broad statement such as 1 - 2.5 % of agricultural GDP depending on the country, then we get into another set of questions, including, what should be the distribution of resources between local, national, regional and international research? Should every country have a full blown research system? How much should donors invest in the CGIAR versus strengthening national programs? What role should multinational firms play in the global research systems, including making some contributions to the public part of that research? Although I have tried at the outset to set some conceptual definitions for the role of international Vs national and public vs. private research, in real life, the boundaries are never sharp, and many of the questions occur precisely in these gray areas. What are truly public research goods - nationally and internationally?

Because I believe that the returns to international agricultural research are very high, and because it is a very small percentage of current ODA budgets, it would be wonderful if we could say that the international donor community that funds the CGIAR, should increase its contribution to the CGIAR from the current 0.3 - 0.4% of their total ODA funds to something like 0.8%. That, however, is not likely to happen immediately, and we must live in a world of constrained budgets for research.

So another set of macro issues would emerge, that I will express here in terms of competing shares of a finite set of resources for Agricultural Research, underlining that it is not a question of either/or but of how much for each.

Inter-Sectoral resource allocation: What should be the balance between the various subsectors of agriculture, forestry, fisheries, livestock, etc. be?

How much should be focused on research for new technologies of production as opposed to research on removing the impediments to applying the known technologies? This is not a trivial question. Paul Waggoner has estimated that if the average Iowa farmer was to produce at the level of the best Iowa farmer, and the average world farmer produced at the level of the average Iowa farmer, the world could feed 10 billion persons on the lands currently under production.

How much to focus on the production process Vs the post-harvest technologies? Today, as much as 15-30 % of the produced crops are lost between farm gate and consumer. This is likely to increase in importance as the large increase of urban consumers will mean greater need for storage and transportability of food.

Should there be a significant effort to establish the global environmental effects of agricultural practices? Agricultural has a huge effect on the global environment in terms of land and water use. But is it also having an impact on climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution of international waters? Should there be an effort to establish what is the likely long term effect of a small but cumulative effect over many years?

Geographic resource allocation is a recurrent theme. Should one look to the transferability of results across a spectrum of agro-ecological zones or assume a specificity that implies some a priori definable shares? Should the criteria for geographic focus of research efforts include the ability of countries in a region to do their own research vs. the value of spillover effects from that research ?

 

8. Specific issues of research strategy priorities

 

Beyond these questions, I can think of a number of key questions that highlight the problems of trying to set priorities for global action on agricultural research.

First – favored versus less-favored areas. This debate has gone on forever. I believe we are past treating this as an either/or choice. But the question then becomes how much of each in a period of finite resources. How does one weight poverty reduction for poor subsistence farmers against low food prices for the urban poor? How does one decide how to allocate resources between traded food grains and subsistence roots and tubers? How does one focus on the particular target groups we want to help, the poorest, the women, those who cultivate fragile environments?

Second – traditional versus exotic crops. The Sahel is one of the most difficult environments in the world. How can one improve the productivity and the income potential of these poor farmers? Should one invest in improving the yields of indigenous crops – millet and sorghum - or try to improve the stress resistance of higher yielding non-traditional maize? Should one invest in developing "tropical" wheat or potatoes or improve yams, sweet potatoes and cassava?

Third – time horizon choices. What should be the time frame of expected impact? Often improved agronomic practices such as spacing, seeding time, weed control and planting depth can have short term yield impacts, whereas genetic improvement, particularly involving complex characteristics, takes much longer but has higher long-run yield potential. What is the appropriate discount rate for high-risk high-impact research? How much should the international system invest in small incremental improvements (including removing impediments to application of known technologies) Vs. the development of radical new technologies such as transgenic techniques for apomixis and plant resistance for the poor?

Fourth – environmental improvement versus yield maximization. Frequently this is posed as a major tradeoff in priority choice but it cannot persist as such. Clearly a major challenge to agricultural science is to turn this apparent win-lose situation into a win-win situation. This is a non-trivial scientific task which is long-run and interdisciplinary. How much should be invested in fundamental research as opposed to applied systems improvement?

Fifth - The integration of traditional knowledge and new science. The documentation of traditional knowledge, including identification of wild races, should be undertaken before it is lost. It must be integrated in a two-way commerce of ideas with modern science, and the poor farmers who are the custodians of this knowledge should benefit from these efforts. How much of the available resources should be directed towards that type of effort?

Sixth - The search for integrated farming practices that reflect local specificities Versus the search for new technologies with very broad applications. Such farming practices would reduce the vulnerability of the small-holder farmer and/or increase her or his income. These require international reach but local adaptation, such as the introduction of multi-purpose leguminous trees like Leucina or Gliricidia, or the introduction of fish ponds for super Tilapia, which turn out to help with on-farm water management in addition to producing fish. How much attention should be given these types of activities versus the use of cutting edge technologies such as transgenic biotechnology to attack the problems of the developing world?

 

9. The Challenge of Priority Setting and Optimal Investment

 

I could go on but you have the flavor of some of the difficult decisions that decision makers face. That is why this conference is so important. It is also why priority setting, ex ante and ex post impact assessment and devising optimal investment patterns are so critical. The array of papers on your program are truly impressive and address many of the fundamental challenges for the 21st Century. All involve choices – choice of scientific approach, choices of agro-ecology, of geography, of species and of expenditure. These choices are made more difficult by the increasing complexity of the problem and tight fiscal resources. But let us not be frightened by the challenge. Without challenges science dies.

 

10. Concluding Comments

Let me conclude by returning to the broader context. Specifically, I have two concerns;

First: The closing up of the international regime

Second: Meeting the agricultural science challenge is only a necessary condition. Sufficiency require much more.

•Rapid technological change in agriculture in the developed and the developing world.
The private sector will have to undertake an increasing share of the necessary research and diffusion. Public sector financing will be needed for areas of limited interest to the private sector, such as genetic resource conservation, common property resource management, integrated pest management, research on subsistence crops and other public goods areas.

•Massive increases in the efficiency of irrigation water use
through changes in water policies, water rights, and institutions for allocating water, and by technical improvements in water conveyance and use.

•Dramatic improvements in the management of soils, watersheds, forests, and biodiversity by local and community-based institutions.

•Accelerated private investment in the rural economies of the developing world.

•Enhanced support by the international community to the agricultural and rural development programs of poor countries.

•Special attention to the needs of the poor, especially women, without whom many of the development objectives will be unattainable.

Even if world food supplies grow dramatically over the next 30 years, fast-growing countries such as China and India could become major food importers. If they, and other countries, are to pursue optimal food strategies, they must have stable, long-term access to world markets. Countries may then focus on producing the goods in which they have a comparative advantage, exporting them in exchange for goods which they cannot produce efficiently – including food. Only with stable, long-term access to world markets can countries comfortably refrain from costly food self-sufficiency policies.

Ensuring household, national, and world food security poses enormous challenges. The challenges are technological and political. They cannot be tackled by economic analysis alone, essential as such analysis remains. They require dramatic improvements in national and international policies, institutions and public expenditures. The role of research is fundamental. The 1.3 billion poor who subsist on less than a dollar a day have waited far too long for these changes. Let us get on with the job.

To double agricultural output while preserving the natural resources on which production is based will require: in which the next generation of agricultural science will take place. This is not likely to be the same free flow of information and germplasm that we have known to date. That freedom allowed the CGIAR to bring the best of advanced research to bear on the problems of the very poor. Paradoxically, despite the Internet and the collaborative mapping of plant genomes, the future risks becoming more constrained if there is a marked increase in patenting of process as well as product, especially in the area of biotechnology and transgenic plants. There are also increasing obstacles to movement of germplasm as national governments assert control over their genetic resources. All this could lead to a scientific apartheid where the 80% of humanity in the developing countries are increasingly locked out of the most recent advances of modern science. These risks may be offset by a greater flow of scientific output. Prudence, however, requires special efforts to make the international agricultural research system more open and integrated, and to reach special arrangements with the private sector on the use of some of the new technologies for the poorest parts of the world. 


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