Agriculture and the Developing World

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Science  17 Oct 2003:
Vol. 302, Issue 5644, pp. 357
DOI: 10.1126/science.302.5644.357

Science is proud to publish, in this issue, the 14 “grand challenges” to world health. For the ninth challenge specifically, and for all the rest more generally, world hunger is an overarching issue. So this is a good time to give an accounting of where we are. It is a time especially rich with new opportunities: The World Bank has just evaluated the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and its 16 centers; academic leaders in the United States have expressed concern about intellectual property regimes and their impact on global agricultural innovation (Science, 11 July 2003, p. 174); and a private-public partnership has begun a major new fundraising effort to support the conservation of valuable genetic resources (“germplasm”). To top it all off, there is the contentious issue of genetically modified (GM) foods and their role in meeting world needs.

Starting with the good news: More attention is being paid to the need for serious plant genetics and crop improvement for poor countries. Donor agencies are being challenged to do more, and the Rockefeller Foundation has revitalized its traditional leadership role in developing-country agriculture. A fundraising effort by the Global Conservation Trust has engaged for-profit companies and numerous nongovernmental organizations to support ex situ conservation of germplasm resources, at CGIAR as well as at national germ banks. To date, the trust has gathered $100 million in gifts and pledges and is still counting.

The World Bank, the linchpin donor agency for CGIAR ($50 million annually), has completed a meta-evaluation of that organization's programs. The report generally praises the work of CGIAR, although it notes a shift away from research on productivity enhancement, amounting to an average annual decrease of over 6% in the past decade. This, says the World Bank, is partly attributable to a lessened role for independent advice from the Technical Advisory Committee. The bank recommends significant changes in governance to refocus CGIAR's emphasis on genetics and on support for core activities at its 16 centers.

Unfortunately, there are three items of bad news. The international intellectual property regime for the development and transfer of genetic resources has been so carved up by patents and licenses that it is becoming, in the view of many, an “anticommons.” That may be a product of commercial interests, but there is enough blame to go around. The Convention on Biodiversity, in trying to protect developing-country interests in medicinal plants, is inhibiting the international collection of genetic resources for agriculture. The new International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture attempts to fix that. But although it supports the internationalization of most major public collections, it introduces grave uncertainties surrounding “orphan crops” vitally important to many developing nations.

A second problem, unrecognized for too long, is the thinness of the public-sector knowledge resources that are available for some of the most important food security crops in the poorest countries. Among these orphan crops are yams and plantains, which are staple foods for many of the poorest sub-Saharan African nations. Less than half a dozen geneticists/plant breeders work on each of these crops. That's the world's only insurance against a catastrophe involving disease or stress resistance that might affect tens of millions of people. These scientists should probably not take the same plane to their next conference.

The final bad-news item, naturally, is the furor over GM crops. Developed-country resistance to GM commodities has discouraged their use in parts of the developed world, despite some country-specific successes (as in Argentina and China). The scientific consensus is reassuring with respect to the safety of GM foods for consumers, and although some concerns remain with respect to environmental impacts, the benefits from reduced pesticide use may offset those risks.

As the GM crops controversy works itself out, those concerned with environmental quality should balance costs and benefits. Unless agricultural production is increased on the good lands, population pressures will cause farmers to move upslope and deforest the hillsides. That's a double whammy: a loss for those families, and a loss for the environment. And on already marginal lands, GM technology may offer the best hope for producing crops that can withstand drought, impoverished soils, and disease. For both these reasons, we'd better resolve the GM controversy. Right now, it's a rich-country argument that's hurting the poor.

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