9. Role of research in global food
security and agricultural

Technical background document
© FAO, 1996


1. Introduction

1.1 Food security is about people and their ability to produce food for themselves, for their neighbours and for the national and global markets. It is about ensuring that all people have economic and physical access to food and that food can be properly utilized to ensure adequate nutrition. Research is part of the global enabling mechanism whereby our current knowledge and intellectual potential are set in a framework that is conducive to generating new, relevant knowledge. Research for food security requires that our human ingenuity is applied to the twin challenge of food production and access to food.

1.2 This twin challenge is formidable. In the coming 30 years the world population is expected to increase by 2.6 billion people, 97 percent of whom will live in the developing world. The absolute population increase will be highest in Asia (1.5 billion) and lowest in Latin America and the Caribbean (230 million) (ECOSOC, 1995). Projections indicate no further significant progress on a decrease in the number of the poor, after two decades of progress. However, while absolute numbers will change little, regional estimates indicate large changes (see Table 1).

1.3 Currently, the highest incidence of poverty is encountered in South Asia, where close to 50 percent of the population is below the poverty line, followed by 19 percent in sub-Saharan Africa, 15 percent in East Asia and 10 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean. However, poverty is projected to increase by 40 percent in Africa, which will then account for 27 percent of the developing world’s poor. The rural poor make up more than 75 percent of the poor in many sub-Saharan and South Asian countries. The urban poor are a slight majority in Latin America, although the poorest of the poor are still found in rural areas. Studies on rural poverty identify small farmers, the landless, women, nomadic pastoralists, artisanal fishermen, indigenous ethnic groups and displaced people as the most vulnerable groups in the rural sector.

1.4 Given population and income growth, market demand for cereals and livestock products is expected to grow much faster in developing than in developed countries (IFPRI, 1995). It is estimated that average per caput demand for foodgrains in developing countries will grow by 0.4 percent per year between 1990 and 2020, and demand for livestock products by 1.5 percent, implying a similar increase in the demand for feedgrains.

1.5 The urban population in developing countries is projected to increase by 4.6 percent per year, rising to 43 percent of the population by the year 2025 (ECOSOC, 1995). This trend will increase problems of food supply and distribution. The incomes of certain segments of urban populations are rising rapidly, leading to increasing demands for more expensive and diversified sources of carbohydrates, such as high-quality cereals instead of roots and tubers; and livestock, fish, horticultural and forest (spices) products. However, the majority of urban dwellers in most developing countries will continue to have limited purchasing power, thereby requiring the supply of low-cost food that stores well and is reasonably convenient to prepare.


1.6 While there is a general consensus that population growth and higher incomes will increase the global demand for food by 2025 to more than double current production levels (McCalla, 1994), there are diverging views on the capacity to mobilize resources to meet this demand. Conventional estimates give reasonable hope that it can be met at the global level without price increases, while other estimates purport to show that this can result only from the mining of natural capital, i.e. at the cost of future production. Moreover, it seems clear that some regions, especially sub-Saharan Africa, will have difficulty in meeting food needs, whether of crops, livestock products, fish or forest products. Such forecasts imply upward pressure on regional food prices, thwarting, to some degree, prospects for income growth.

1.7 Although there is considerable congruence among the various estimates for demand, those pertaining to food supply vary significantly. All food-supply estimates are based on the hypothesis that there will be continuing improvements in technology and support for research in order to increase food production. This study examines this hypothesis.


2. The track record of agricultural research

2.1 Science and technology, through investments in agricultural research, have made impressive contributions to the growth of the agricultural sector in many parts of the developing world. Since the mid-1960s, global food production has increased by 80 percent, with more than half of that increase in developing countries. Agricultural growth, made possible through the adoption of modern technologies, has contributed to increasing food security and alleviating poverty in the developing world.

2.2 Research is required that will help liberate the deprived and disadvantaged from the grip of extreme poverty and hunger. This reflects a new appreciation of the role of agriculture and of research in alleviating poverty. Earlier paradigms saw poverty and poor people as being remote from research and more the province of development. The current, more holistic, view sees agriculture as an important factor in stimulating growth and hence sees research as an important instrument for reaching the poor. This has led to a clearer sense of the impact of poverty on natural resources and the environment, as manifested through the idea of sustainable development.

2.3 Over the past four decades, yield increases in the major foodgrains throughout the world have been substantial. Yield levels of maize, rice and wheat nearly doubled over the 1960 to 1994 period (Table 2). These yield increases are attributable largely to improved varieties, irrigation, fertilizers, and a range of improved crop- and resource-management technologies. Much of this has been part of the green revolution.(1) Development of short-duration varieties has contributed to higher food production and improved the returns to costly resources used by poor farmers, while crop- and resource-management technologies have improved environmental and resource sustainability. Cultivation of less-favourable lands made possible by new plant varieties (e.g. drought-tolerant crop varieties) has also contributed to higher food production (Plucknett, 1993). Neither must it be forgotten that innovations in the chemical industry have allowed the price of fertilizers and other agrochemicals to come down, even if fluctuations in the world oil price influence the actual price to farmers. Similarly investments in irrigation infrastructure have represented massive subsidies to irrigated agriculture. With cheaper inputs, production costs have come down, and production has been stimulated.

2.4 Rapid productivity gains have, in general, decreased food costs and improved food security, particularly for vulnerable sections of society. The urban poor have been important beneficiaries of this downward trend. In the case of the United States, for example, without the productivity gains achieved since the 1950s, consumers would now be paying approximately US$100 billion more for food each year (USDA, 1991). Higher productivity has also reduced the conversion of forest, grasslands and swamplands for cultivation of food crops. Tweeten (1994), for instance, estimates that in the United States, using the technology of 1950 rather than that of today would require more than twice as much cropland to produce the current level of output.


2.5 In developing countries too, agricultural research has played an important role in improving food security, reducing poverty and sustaining broad-based economic development. The green revolution technological packages were the results of intense research efforts. The widespread impact of agricultural research on the poor in developing countries is reflected in a number of important indicators of food security and economic development. They include:

2.6 Agricultural research has had positive effects on the environment, most notably through increasing productivity, resulting in fewer marginal areas being cultivated. In India, for instance, with the technologies of the 1960s, farmers would need nearly 60 million hectares of additional land to produce the quantity of wheat consumed today (CGIAR, 1995a).

2.7 Agricultural research has also helped in reducing reliance on unnecessary chemical inputs. Research on environmental issues and on natural-resource use and conservation is, however, more recent and impacts are just beginning to be felt. One area of work that is fairly advanced is integrated pest management (IPM), which shows considerable positive results. IPM programmes in several countries in Asia have greatly reduced pesticide use and actually increased rice yields (IRRI, 1995). A recent study by the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) shows that bean farmers in the Andean regions of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru can reduce insecticide use by 70 percent without lowering crop yields (IFPRI, 1996). IPM has shown promising results in the control of potato weevil in Peru and in many other countries. The application of research efforts in IPM has often constituted the focus for broad-based implementation of other research results from the biological and social sciences, for example through the FAO farmers’ field school principles used in Southeast Asia.

2.8 Even in less controlled, more diverse and risk-prone rain-fed areas, agricultural research has had significant success. Improved varieties of cereals, cassava, sorghum and cowpea are widespread in developing countries and have had significant impacts on food production for both market and subsistence uses. Rain-fed areas under high-yielding varieties (HYVs) of cereals, in fact, exceed irrigated areas under such varieties (Byerlee, 1993). However, growth in agricultural productivity in some of these difficult environments has not kept pace with population increases, and natural resources are under growing pressure to support large and increasing numbers of the poor.

2.9 Agricultural research has added substantially to the economic well-being of both producers and consumers by raising productivity. Investments in agricultural research have made possible the technological breakthroughs that have led to greater food security around the world. Without these investments in agricultural research, the consequence would have been higher food costs causing greater food insecurity for those with low purchasing power. Likewise, without sufficient future investments in research, the process of achieving food security, poverty alleviation and economic development will be seriously threatened.

Returns to agricultural research

2.10 Rates of return to investments on agricultural research have been impressive and are generally estimated to range from 20 to 190 percent in developing countries (Table 3). A comparison across commodities indicates that rates of return to maize research have been very high at 191 percent in South America and 78 to 91 percent in Mexico. Rates of return to rice research in India and Indonesia are in the range of 60 to 65 percent. Rates of return to wheat research have been over 50 percent in developing countries. Even for less widely grown crops, such as cowpeas, research investments have had good pay-offs, 60 to 80 percent. These high rates of return indicate that the benefits from the investment easily justify the research costs.

2.11 Several studies have attempted to show the impact of agricultural research on various food-security indicators. Rosegrant, Agcaoili and Perez (1995) showed that if international donors were to eliminate all funding of national and international agricultural research, foodgrain production would drop by 10 percent and the number of malnourished children would increase by 50 million (32 percent) in developing countries. On the other hand, if donor funding were to increase by 50 percent, foodgrain production would increase by 40 percent and the number of malnourished children would decrease by 46 million (30 percent).

2.12 International agricultural research has evolved over the years. Initially, the emphasis was on production aspects, focusing on crop improvement through seed-embodied technologies that resulted in higher piles of rice and wheat, albeit with uneven adoption rates. This triggered another stage focused on constraints research in small-scale systems and broadened analysis to include the human-ecological environment in which technologies had to fit. This wider analytical context, and the impact on society of increasing environmental degradation, expanded the emphasis towards natural resources, with a special focus on their conservation. Lately, in recognition that the sustainability of natural resources could not be pursued independently of, or in opposition to, the interests of the poor, and particularly the rural poor, the emphasis has been moving towards focusing on the links among poverty, environment and agriculture, with poverty alleviation as the central nexus between agricultural production and environmental degradation.


2.13 At present rates of population growth, developing countries will depend on dwindling areas of cropland per person and declining access to forests, rangeland and fisheries. In Asia, for example, the current 0.15 ha of available cropland per caput is forecast to fall to a mere 0.09 ha by 2025 (CGIAR, 1995a). While many are concerned about the degradation of that shrinking land base, there are few quantitative studies on the impact of degradation on production, especially in developing countries, and those available offer widely differing predictions.

2.14 Water, too, is coming under increasing pressure. It has been noted that agriculture in the developing world uses some 70 percent of the fresh water available and apparently accounts for a significant part of what is perceived as waste and contamination of water. As with soils, there is little hard information on what constitutes efficient use of water and on how that use can be made more effective.

2.15 These uncertainties about the extent and causes of ineffective land and water use and its impact on agriculture, health and other sectors may stem from analyses that emphasize change from the natural state. There is an emerging consensus, however, that the productive use of land and water is not inherent in ecosystems, but is dependent on latent biophysical qualities interacting with human decisions (Turner and Benjamin, 1994). It is necessary to know who makes decisions about use and to understand why and how such decisions are made. Interpretations of such decisions and impacts by different resource users may differ as much as those based on indigenous and scientific knowledge.

2.16 A critical point in this discussion is that at a time of financial constraints it remains important for the funders of agricultural research to be aware that there are several potential pathways to increased food production. The returns on research investments will vary, depending on the production setting in which research efforts are being expended, on the likelihood of research success in that setting and on the economic, social and environmental values assigned to possible implementation of the research results.

2.17 If agricultural productivity is seen as the target for research (defined in a sustainability context), four alternative approaches may be considered:

2.18 Although available statistics make it difficult to obtain accurate figures, there are reasons to believe that of the 800 million food-insecure people, approximately half live in areas of high-potential lands and half in low-potential lands.


3. Implications for funding and institutional reforms

Recent trends in funding agricultural research

3.1 The major problem confronted by the public research system in recent years has been one of declining and unstable funding levels. After significant growth during the 1960s and 1970s, growth in agricultural research investments slowed in the 1980s and has remained stagnant in the 1990s.

3.2 International investments in agricultural research, mainly from multilateral and bilateral sources, have also diminished in the 1980s and 1990s as a result of budget constraints in developed countries. The declining rate of investment in agricultural research reflects a more general pattern of declining support for agriculture. Multilateral commitments to agriculture declined by 50 percent between 1986 and 1993, while bilateral assistance declined by 20 percent (FAO, 1995b).

3.3 The World Bank has become a major source of external funding for agricultural research. This trend is of concern because the World Bank remains a wholesaling financial institution. The World Bank does not have the human resources that an external institution needs to support the necessary complex and profound institutional changes that are required. The processes of institutional development and scientific research require a careful approach with extensive interaction on scientific and institutional issues.

3.4 National agricultural research systems (NARS) in developing countries need funding and face a pervasive shortage of resources in their operating budgets, which frequently renders researchers much less productive than they could be. Real expenditures per researcher declined considerably in the 1980s in all developing regions. Research intensity now remains at about 0.5 percent on average for most developing countries (Table 4); by contrast, levels in developed countries vary from 2 to 4 percent.

3.5 Growing uncertainty regarding the stability of donor funding poses an additional problem for the public research system, rendering medium-term planning and programme formulation extremely difficult. Conditional funding, or pledges of financial support tied to specific and discrete research activities, leads to the research agenda being driven by funding prospects rather than by a coherent set of priorities. In the case of international programmes, this may lead to distortions and ad hoc shifts in work programmes, depending on donor preferences, and it obstructs the serious pursuit of long-term research priorities determined on their own intrinsic merits.

3.6 Funding support for public research systems has become the object of policy ambivalence for a variety of reasons. Budget reduction pressures, donor fatigue with food and agricultural projects, scepticism among policy-makers regarding the potential for research to solve the problems facing the agricultural sector of developing countries and complacency about the global food situation have all contributed to declining funding commitments for research systems. Declining international prices of agricultural commodities (at least until very recently) and conflicts between agricultural and environmental issues have also led to declining political interest in agriculture. The fact that overproduction and disputes on subsidies have been the main domestic agricultural policy issues in many industrialized donor countries has often diverted public interest from pressing food-security challenges in developing countries.




3.7 Though donors have provided a commendable level of support for agricultural research in the past, the long time lag between research capacity building and the actual impact of research means that donors may feel that they do not receive enough feedback on their investments and hence lack the incentive to continue funding. However, adequate support to developing country NARS to use their existing and newly developed research capacity and to provide the essential local links to technology adaptation and transfer, will be an important element in promoting global food security.

3.8 The mobilization of agricultural ministers to support international agricultural public-goods research through the renewal of the CGIAR system through the February 1995 Lucerne Declaration forms an important starting point for widening the dialogue to extend eventually to ministers of finance and heads of State. The World Food Summit offers an opportunity to highlight the importance of the necessary national and regional political and financial commitments. This would be an important means of focusing attention on investment in research.

3.9 Modern agriculture in developed countries has benefited greatly from private investments in research. Some of the origins of agricultural research can be found in the chemical industries, for example the fertilizer industry. Similarly, in plant protection, the veterinary sector, mechanization, plant breeding and genetic improvements in poultry and pigs, private industry has played a major role in the growth and efficiency of agricultural industries. Food processing has also been a target of intense private research efforts, with considerable feedback to agricultural production. Further liberalization of developed-country economies has enhanced the role that the private sector will play in agricultural research, as the public sector is reduced. The private sector has also become important in some developing countries, particularly in Asia and Latin America, with focus on fertilizers, plant protection, veterinary medicine, plant breeding and mechanization, and on cash crops and export commodities. Moves towards liberalization in developing-country economies will also raise serious issues relating to the balance between privately and publicly funded agricultural research, particularly for staple foods on which food-insecure people are dependent. There seems to be a general consensus in international circles that much of the research for important food crops must and will remain in the public domain.


4. The scientific environment

4.1 Economic assessments continue to indicate high financial and social returns to investments in agricultural research. Although there is an ongoing debate on methodologies for these assessments and some overestimation is a possibility, estimated returns are consistently high enough to confirm that agricultural research is an excellent investment. Despite these documented high returns, investments in agricultural research have not been increasing. But to forego high pay-off investments such as those in agricultural research seems ill-advised for nations striving to alleviate poverty and food insecurity.

4.2 In terms of the actions of individual countries over the past decade, public-sector support for agriculture and agricultural research has declined in real terms virtually everywhere (Pinstrup-Andersen, 1995b). Developed countries have reduced the proportion of public funds directed to such activities and nominal increases in some budgets have been more than offset by inflation. At the same time, development assistance agencies have also reduced their support to agriculture in developing countries. The same trends are evident in all but a handful of developing countries.

4.3 Partially offsetting these effects are increases in some research fields by the private sector. Even so, investment in research on public goods has declined notably on a global basis. On the other hand, perhaps the strongest source of optimism is the emergence of regional groupings of national research capacities which promise to strengthen research agencies in developing countries. They will also facilitate the channelling of resources from international centres. Within regional groups there is a growing recognition of the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in diffusing information, in bringing a user-perspective approach to adaptive research and in strengthening the community action that is important in natural-resources management.

The prospects of science

4.4 If research is to provide a basis for the challenge posed by the food-security issue, its scientific foundation must be examined. Agricultural research has frequently been at the forefront of the biological, statistical and social sciences, pointing the way for applications in other research fields. Some of the greatest names in science have been closely associated with agriculture: Gregor Mendel, R.A. Fischer, Paul Samuelson and many others. Today much of the inspiration for agricultural research can be found both in the advanced natural and biological sciences and in the applied social sciences, and useful partnerships have developed where agriculture can benefit. Where is agricultural research leading over the next decades, and what are the ingredients that will form the basis for endeavours towards food security for all? There are some exciting prospects ahead that warrant attention.

4.5 Genome mapping (using tools from molecular biology and methods from biometry to synthesize concepts from classical genetics) is recognized as a valuable approach to the improvement of germplasm. Studies on cereal genetics and physical mapping are now under way in the United States, Europe and Japan. One of the startling discoveries of these activities is that the orders of DNA sequences in the genomes of rice, maize, wheat, barley, rye, sorghum and foxtail millet are very similar. Although these species have been isolated by many millions of years of separate evolution, their genomes have retained collinearity of genes. The practical consequence of this is that knowledge of rice can be used, for example, to breed wheat. Rice has a very small genome (that of any one of the component genomes of wheat is 15 times larger) so it is easier to find genes on the rice map than the wheat map. In practice the rice map can be searched for commercially important genes, and if found in rice, the equivalent gene can be located in the corresponding section of the wheat map. The same approach can be used for breeding other species in the cereals group; the genetics of rice, for example, can be applied to maize or sorghum.

4.6 Results are already to hand which suggest similar collinearity in the genomes of pulses. Therefore, principles such as those used for cereals may soon be deployed, for example, in the genera Phaseolus (beans), Vigna (cowpeas) and Lens (lentils). In addition, even without collinearity, the mapping of the human genome is of help in locating genes on the maps of domestic animals.

4.7 Other opportunities are also arising from detailed mapping, especially for genes that affect quantitative characters or disease resistance. Quantitative trait loci (QTLs) are genes that contribute to the expression of continuously variable characters, such as yield or height. These genes are being located on maps and the positive (increasing) and negative (diminishing) alleles of the gene are being identified. The accumulation in a single plant or animal breeding line of the positive QTLs for yield will increase the yield potential of the line. Results from this process are beginning to appear for some staple crops.

4.8 When two or more genes give resistance to the same race of a disease, it is not normally possible to recognize whether one or more resistance genes is present. But, by gene tagging with markers, genotypes can be selected into which several genes have been pyramided. The presence of more than one resistance gene will prevent breakdown of resistance by a single genetic change to virulence in the pathogen. Therefore the durability of resistance will be enhanced.

4.9 Nucleic acid technology will also improve research on soil microbiology. The composition of the population of the microorganisms can be determined in any soil. This will make possible more precise predictions of how soils should be managed to improve current productivity without hazarding the sustainability of such natural resources.

4.10 For the past decade, expectations have been high that transgenic crops, with introduced alien genes, would significantly benefit farmers in developing countries. Transgenics are expected to contribute to two components: they should add to productivity by providing increased resistance to diseases and insects; this would in turn lead to a second environmental benefit, that of diminishing the use of crop-protective chemicals. Attempts to exploit genetically manipulated organisms (GMOs) have, however, been constrained principally by the appropriate caution of governments in framing regulations governing the conditions under which GMOs may be released. There are clearly serious issues of both biosafety and ethics which must be respected. It is not unreasonable, however, to expect that in the immediate future more countries will permit releases to agriculture.

4.11 The outcome for agriculture of GMOs cannot be predicted with certainty, but caution would be wise, as knowledge of the phenomenon known as gene silencing is inadequate. When an introduced gene is silenced, even though it is still present in the genome of the recipient organism, it is not expressed. Silencing often occurs when the introduced gene has a product similar to that of a gene of the recipient. The information now becoming available on production and use of transgenics will need to take into account gene silencing.

4.12 In the field of natural-resources management, choices about land use2 result from complex decision-making processes involving information on soils, climates, vegetation, location, infrastructure, potential uses, markets and available economic resources. Advances in the generation and application of geographical information systems (GIS) techniques will influence future developments in the understanding and management of processes related to the use of land resources for agriculture, forestry and fisheries. GIS is a software application designed to provide the tools to manipulate and display spatial data. In addition to computerized maps, GIS accepts, organizes, statistically analyses and displays diverse types of spatial data that are digitally referenced to a common coordinated system. As each set of data is grouped together in an overlay, new data sets can be produced by combining them, allowing the researcher to look at interactions and facilitating the development of an interdisciplinary ecological production approach to research on sustainability issues.

4.13 Renewed emphasis on natural-resources management requires a further expansion of the conceptual framework that integrates data, information and knowledge on land-use research for agriculture, forestry and fisheries. Conventionally, scientists have used production systems as the foci for such integration, sharing information with their peers. But cooperation among institutions involved in developing a common research agenda could further benefit from linkages among their information management processes, which should then become an explicit part of the research process.

4.14 Social-science research also offers new possibilities. New insights into the development and the role of institutions for work in such fields as common property offer promise. Concepts dealing with the evaluation of resources will reinforce work in natural-resources management, as will new work in support of participatory research.

4.15 Within the context of progress in research there are two particular issues that offer opportunities but also place constraints on agricultural science: intellectual property rights and the impact of information technologies.

Intellectual property rights

4.16 Intellectual property rights (IPR) provide an inventor exclusive rights to use an invention for a specified period of time. Expansion of IPR to include plants and animals has contributed to the growth of private-sector research in plant breeding and biotechnology in recent years. In the United States, for example, private investments in plant-breeding research increased from less than US$25 million in 1960 to more than US$470 million in 1994 (Fuglie, Klotz and Gill, 1996). The private sector owns over 80 percent of new plant varieties (Ibid). Recent advances in biotechnology are likely to increase private-sector involvement in the development of agricultural technologies that can be provided to the public at a profit.

4.17 There is increasing concern, however, among scientists and research administrators in developing countries regarding the issue of property rights on genetic resources. IPR could slow down the transfer of improved crop varieties and animal breeds to poor developing countries that cannot afford to buy the technology and to countries where these rights are not strictly enforceable for political reasons. These technological developments, coupled with market reforms, are likely to enlarge the economic gap between those countries that can afford to buy new plant varieties and technologies from the private sector and those that cannot.

4.18 The successful outcome of the Fourth International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources, organized by FAO in Leipzig, Germany in June 1996, offers promise of more global consensus on these issues in the future.

Information technology

4.19 As production systems become more complex with the introduction of new technologies, knowledge and information have become important resources. Those who have access to information and have the ability to understand it will have a comparative advantage in choosing appropriate technologies and reducing costs. Information is extremely important in managing scarce resources such as water in an environment of growing scarcity and competition. Modern communication systems (e.g. television, radio, telephone, facsimile and the Internet) help to overcome physical and bureaucratic barriers to the dissemination of research results. They speed up the exchange of information among scientists and between scientists and administrators.

4.20 Sources of information are changing from being more publicly based to more privately based and this again has implications for food security among those countries that are able to access information and those that cannot. In some developing countries (e.g. Argentina, Brazil, India and the Philippines), private input suppliers, who can take advantage of advanced communication systems, are becoming a major source of information to farmers. In the future, global technology systems will have to use these private information systems for the more efficient transfer of technology.

4.21 Even though the cost of information technologies has declined, developing countries do not yet possess the required physical infrastructure to use them effectively. Developing countries need to increase investments in infrastructure including telephones, electricity, all-weather roads and education to benefit from advances in information technologies.

4.22 In this context, the building of ad hoc electronic institutions (Hart, 1994) around specific research programmes could facilitate the development of regional and global partnerships as envisaged in the CGIAR renewal process. Such virtual institutions would operate as brokers, actively using available electronic information resources (e.g. databases connected by client/server relationships) and supporting services (e.g. e-mail, list servers, electronic conferences) to bring real institutions together. Their role is to increase partnership potential by helping institutions to find each other and then selecting the correct electronic services and appropriate hosts connected to the right networks.


5. The agricultural research agenda for the next decade

5.1 This chapter (largely based on CGIAR/TAC, 1996a,b,c) outlines the likely research emphasis for important commodities that pertain directly to the production challenge for food security and for other elements that integrate natural and social science in the overall and larger food-security research agenda.


5.2 Crops and their products provide about 52 percent of the total value of production from agriculture, forestry and fisheries in developing countries. In Asia this share amounts to 59 percent, in sub-Saharan Africa 41 percent, in Latin America and the Caribbean 42 percent and in the Near East and North Africa about 51 percent.



5.3 Globally, rice is the most important crop in terms of its contribution to diet and value of production. Of the 146 million hectares harvested worldwide in 1994, about 142 million hectares were in developing countries, producing 506 million tonnes of paddy. Asia is the primary producer, accounting for 93 percent of production in developing countries. Only about 4 percent of world rice production is traded on the international market.

5.4 If past trends in demand continue, world rice production will need to increase by 21 percent by 2005, and by 65 percent by 2025 (1.7 percent annually). These escalating demand levels will require a concerted research effort to continue the development of improved technologies for production. The green revolution in rice suggests that the return on research investment in rice over the last 30 years can reach at least 80 percent. During this period, the new rice varieties allowed for an increase in rice production that was sufficient to feed about 600 million more people (IRRI, 1990). In order to meet the problem of stagnating or even falling yields now being experienced in some areas in Southeast Asia, further efforts in maintenance research, as well as in lifting the yield ceiling, will be required. However, if rising demand is to be met, other rice-growing systems (shallow rain-fed rice, deep-water and floating rice and upland rice) will also have to receive attention.

5.5 The future of rice research holds exciting challenges and opportunities. New plant architecture and the development of hybrid rice and apomixis are key developments likely to have impacts during the next two decades. Rice research aims at making significant contributions to environmental goals such as the protection of tropical forests and reduction in agrochemical use, as well as in feeding people through devoting its efforts to the development of improved rice gene pools and integrated crop management.


5.6 After rice, wheat is the most important food source in the developing world, contributing more energy to diets than all other cereals combined. It is higher in protein content than almost all other cereals.

5.7 In the period 1992 to 1994, developing countries accounted for 45 percent of world wheat production (551 million tonnes) and 46 percent of world wheat area (219 million hectares). Between 50 and 70 percent of improved wheat varieties released during the last 30 years have been based on crosses made by the International Centre for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT) in Mexico. The pay-off from investment in wheat research has been very high, but further efforts are required to sustain the increased yield levels achieved. There are new opportunities for significant breakthroughs in disease resistance through new science on wide crosses.


5.8 Among the food crops, maize ranks third after rice and wheat both in terms of energy contribution and in terms of value of production. For the 1992 to 1994 three-year average, developing countries produced an estimated 43 percent of world production (522 million tonnes) from about 84 million hectares (66 percent of total maize area). The crop is grown in all the developing regions.

5.9 Where grown for human food, maize is an important source of energy for the poor. The crop is widely grown in mixed cropping systems by subsistence farmers. The potential for increasing yields is high. The main constraints are environmental stresses (particularly drought), diseases and insect pests, nutrient deficiency (especially nitrogen and phosphorus) and low levels of external inputs. Both improved open-pollinated varieties and hybrids are required, depending on local needs and the efficiency of national seed producers. In the lowland tropics, the development of better varieties and improved management practices relevant to farmers’ needs would contribute considerably to improved production. In sub-Saharan Africa, low fertilizer rates and poor management are currently a greater constraint than the availability of HYVs. In East and southern Africa, where there are extensive lowland and highland areas ideally suited to maize production, the pay-off from the development of appropriate technology for small-scale farmers is exceptionally high.


5.10 Barley is the fourth most important cereal crop. It is grown on about 70 million hectares and global production is 160 million tonnes. Developing countries account for about 18 percent (26 million tonnes) of global production and 25 percent (18.5 million hectares) of the harvested area. In most developing countries barley is a typical crop of poor farmers and of hostile environments. In Tibet (China), Ethiopia and the Andes, it is cultivated on mountain slopes at elevations higher than other cereals. In many areas of North Africa, the Near East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Eritrea and Yemen it is often the only possible rain-fed crop, and therefore neither the area nor the production reflect the actual importance of the crop.

5.11 The future challenge is to consolidate past achievements and to develop a new methodology for introducing farmers’ participation in breeding as a way to exploit specific adaptation and overcome constraints to technology transfer.


5.12 Some 70 percent of the world’s sorghum production (60.9 million tonnes) and 90 percent of its sorghum area (43.5 million hectares) are located in the developing regions. Sorghum is a major crop of the lowland semi-arid tropics with summer rainfall, where it has a special importance, together with millet, as a staple food for millions of very poor people in drought-prone, high-risk areas. In West Africa, sorghum is an important crop in the subhumid areas, where it is intercropped with millet, maize and cowpea. Sorghum is also an important crop in the medium-altitude areas of Ethiopia and East and southern Africa. Sorghum tends to have a negative elasticity of demand and is usually substituted by other foods when income permits. In many areas, the stalks and foliage, used as fodder, fuel and construction materials, are as important as the grain or even more so.

5.13 The main constraints to sorghum production being addressed through research are drought and biotic stresses. A major objective of varietal-improvement research is broadening the genetic base of breeding materials. The main targets are dual purpose varieties and hybrids that combine high yields of both grain and stover. It includes forage sorghum hybrids, as forage uses of sorghum are increasing rapidly in areas of Asia and Latin America. Other research emphasizes development of management options to mitigate the same biotic and abiotic stresses and their integration into management packages suitable for small-scale farmers in the semi-arid tropics.


5.14 In Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, pearl millet is the most important crop grown under dryland conditions in the lowland semi-arid tropics and subtropical areas with summer rainfall. There it is a staple food, together with sorghum (in sub-Saharan Africa) or wheat (in Asia). Pearl millet provides food for some of the world’s poorest countries. It produces grain and fodder under conditions too hot and too dry and on soils too poor for sorghum and maize. Its straw is a valuable livestock feed in those farming systems.

5.15 Because some countries combine their statistics for sorghum and millets, the data for millets tend to be unreliable, especially for sub-Saharan Africa. It appears that millets are harvested from about 34 million hectares annually in developing countries. In semi-arid West Africa, they account for about half the daily energy intake and one-third of the protein for local people.

5.16 Downy mildew is the most important disease of millets worldwide and is the subject of active research. Stem borers cause significant losses each year in sub-Saharan Africa. Resistance breeding has proved difficult. Pheromone traps have been tried and found effective in eight West African countries. Wide use of these traps is expected by 1997.

Roots, tubers, banana and plantain


5.17 Cassava is an important food crop in Africa, particularly in the humid and subhumid tropics. It is also important in parts of Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean. Besides roots, the leaves are eaten as a green vegetable in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa and provide a cheap and rich source of protein and vitamins A and B. The crop is grown mostly by small-scale farmers, for whom it is a major source of cash income and food energy. It tolerates low-fertility soils and drought, and can be left in the ground as a food reserve for long periods. Cassava ranks among the 15 most important agricultural commodities in developing countries with respect to value of production, and is the most important agricultural commodity in sub-Saharan Africa.

5.18 Future research should emphasize post-harvest technology, quality of roots for various end uses including livestock feed and industrial purposes, pest and disease control and to a lesser extent foliage production for use as a vegetable. These issues have remained high priorities. In addition, cassava market assessment needs to indicate opportunities for improved or novel cassava-based products. This information will serve technological interventions, strengthening the gradual transformation of cassava from subsistence towards market orientation.


5.19 Approximately 30 percent (about 89 million tonnes) of the world’s potato crop is currently produced in developing countries, mainly by small-scale farmers, compared to only 15 percent two decades ago. Potato is a labour- intensive crop. The nutrient value (including vitamin C) of potato is high, and the crop is particularly useful as a source of energy and protein and as an infant-weaning food. High yields are possible, demand is growing rapidly because of the positive income elasticity of demand for the crop at low income levels, and potato has a high value as a cash crop.

5.20 Among the major constraints to increased production are the high costs of production, various diseases and pests, the perishability of the crop during storage and the difficulty of developing varieties adapted to higher temperatures. As in the case of other roots and tubers, national research capacity in potato research was generally weak at the start of CGIAR activities with this commodity.

5.21 Potato has responded well to research, and plant breeding has already brought about significant improvements in the crop in developing countries. Virology research in the potato has advanced greatly, and the safe movement of germplasm is now a reality. The adoption of improved potato varieties is often delayed by the absence of national seed or multiplication systems. To sustain production increases in the future, a coordinated effort to develop more durable host-plant resistance to potato late blight is required.

Sweet potato

5.22 Sweet potato is now widely grown as a staple food in developing countries outside tropical America, where it originated. Although sweet-potato statistics are dominated by the production level of China (the world’s largest sweet-potato producer, accounting for about 80 percent of production), the crop is also grown in many small countries with typically very low income levels. It is well adapted to warm tropical lowlands and produces relatively well under low-input conditions on good soils.

5.23 Sweet potato has very little research history. Although current yields in sub-Saharan Africa average only 6 t/ha, the crop’s high yield potential has been demonstrated by the CGIAR system’s research in that region, which has led to varieties that can produce more than 40 t/ha in four months when grown in the wet season.

5.24 Pests and diseases, such as the sweet-potato weevil, stem borer, viruses and mycoplasma-like organisms, are major production constraints. IPM appears to show promise for the future.


5.25 Yams are cultivated throughout the tropics and in parts of the subtropics and temperate zones. They are of major importance in sub-Saharan Africa and in the Pacific and Caribbean islands. Estimated world production is 28.1 million tonnes, of which 95 percent is grown in sub-Saharan Africa.

5.26 Yam is a preferred food and a food-security crop in some sub-Saharan African countries. Yam production is limited by various diseases and pests. Nematodes cause serious damage both in the field and in storage. Post-harvest losses also result from fungal and bacterial rots and insects as well as from increased respiration and sprouting when tubers break dormancy. International research efforts on yam are both limited and fairly recent.

Banana and plantain

5.27 Banana and plantain are staple food crops for millions of people in developing countries. About 90 percent of production takes place on small farms and is consumed locally. Only 10 percent, mainly from commercial plantations in Latin America and the Caribbean, enters world trade. In terms of gross value of production, banana and plantain rank eighth after rice, milk, beef, wheat, maize, soybean and groundnut.

5.28 Banana and plantain production is threatened by pest and disease pressures, which have been increasing over the past 15 years. These include black sigatoka leaf spot disease, fusarium wilt (Panama disease), banana weevil, a complex of plant parasitic nematodes and several virus diseases (banana bunchy top, banana mosaic, banana streak and others). Black sigatoka disease causes severe leaf necrosis with significant fruit-yield decreases.

5.29 Plantain and banana are generally considered intractable to genetic improvement because of their triploid nature which results in almost complete sterility. Nevertheless, in recent years the CGIAR system and other regional banana and plantain improvement programmes have made excellent progress in breeding hybrids with resistance to black sigatoka, improved yields and acceptable fruit quality. In addition, research in cellular biotechnology and virus diagnostics have provided ways to achieve delivery of improved germplasm on the scale necessary for achieving an impact with small-scale growers.

Food legumes


5.30 The oldest records of the cultivated chickpea are from Turkey, and it is assumed that the crop spread out worldwide from that area. Generally the crop is grown on small-scale farms as both a food and a cash crop. The seeds are used whole, dehulled or as flour. Immature shoots and seed may be used as vegetables. In 1994, world production was 7.9 million tonnes from 10.2 million hectares, of which 97 percent was from developing countries. For the 1992 to 1994 three-year production average, Asia accounted for 76 percent of production. The major constraints to production include disease susceptibility of local varieties, environmental stresses, drought, diseases, pests and poor crop management. Efforts of the CGIAR have already produced significant results, notably the combination of blight resistance and frost tolerance.


5.31 Cowpea is widely grown in the warm semi-arid and subhumid regions of sub-Saharan Africa and is locally important in the Caribbean Islands, Brazil, Yemen, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia.

5.32 Cowpea is usually grown by subsistence farmers and in mixtures with maize, sorghum, millet and cassava. Average yields in developing countries are about 240 kg/ha. However, the best short- to medium-duration varieties so far developed can yield 2 500 to 3 000 kg/ha in field conditions on research stations, and short-duration varieties can achieve more than 2 000 kg/ha in 60 to 90 days. The major constraints to farm yields are three insect pests: flower thrips, Maruca pod borer and pod-sucking bugs. Only low levels of resistance have been found in the cowpea germplasm for each of these three insect pests.

5.33 In 1994-1995, a very efficient method was developed to regenerate and produce transformed cowpea plants. This major research breakthrough has made it very probable that further significant progress can be made in developing cowpea varieties with good levels of resistance to these three insect pests. In addition, progress in research on biological control of flower thrips, based on natural enemies, indicates that this technology may also be a feasible control measure. Future research will seek to continue to develop varieties for these ecologies, combining tolerance to drought and heat with improved phosphate-use efficiency.

Broad bean

5.34 Broad bean is a spring crop in temperate regions and a winter crop in subtropical regions with mild winters. It is grown at high elevations in tropical and subtropical regions. Two main groups exist: small-seeded types, found in Afghanistan, Egypt, the Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea; and large-seeded types, found in other parts of the Near East and North Africa.

5.35 The crop is important in rotation in low monetary input agriculture because of its high biological nitrogen fixation (120 N/ha) and beneficial residual effect for subsequent cereal crops. The constraints to production include: diseases, the parasitic weed Orobanche, field and storage pests, poor crop management and soil salinity in some areas. Research efforts have been limited in recent years, and there is a need to revisit research into this crop.


5.36 Global lentil production is growing rapidly. It has risen by 110 percent from 1.3 million tonnes in the period 1979 to 1981 to 2.8 million tonnes in the period 1992 to 1994 as a result of a 50 percent increase in area to 3.38 million hectares and a 38 percent increase in productivity from 600 to 820 kg/ha. Developing countries account for 87 percent of the world lentil area. The major producing regions are in Asia.

5.37 The crop is important for its use as a pulse and as a small-ruminant feed. In the drier areas of the Near East and North Africa lentil is a key component of traditional farming systems integrating barley, small ruminants and lentil. Research challenges include the development of both short-duration varieties and hardier winter cultivars. Vascular wilt is the most important disease of lentil and resistance is now being exploited for disease control. To control the damage of Sitona weevils to lentil nodules, genetic engineering is being considered to transfer a gene for toxin production into the lentil roots.

Common bean

5.38 The common field or garden bean is the world’s most important food legume. Common beans are grown in two forms, as dry beans and as snap beans (the green pods consumed as a vegetable). Global production of dry beans is estimated to be 18 million tonnes annually, with a market value of US$10.7 billion.

5.39 Major research options for improving bean productivity in Latin America and Africa have focused on public-sector breeding efforts. There is little private-sector interest in bean seed production outside Argentina, Brazil and the United States. International research on beans at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) has traditionally concentrated on improved resistance to diseases and pests and, more recently, on tolerance to drought and low soil fertility and on improved yield potential. There are impending breakthroughs in the areas of disease resistance and breaking the yield plateau. There is now a better understanding of gene pools and of new plant types better suited to mechanical harvesting.

Pigeon pea

5.40 Pigeon pea is widely grown by subsistence farmers in the warm semi-arid and subhumid tropics. It is often grown on poor soils and with few inputs. It is an important food in India and is popular in parts of East Africa and Central America. The seeds are used whole, dehulled or as a flour, and in Latin America and the Caribbean immature seeds and pods are used as a vegetable. The woody stem is valuable as fuelwood, thatch and fencing, and the leaves are an important source of nitrogen for the soil.

5.41 Traditionally, pigeon pea is a long-season crop, but short-duration varieties developed by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in collaboration with the Indian NARS have triggered a 15 percent increase in the area sown over the last five years. This germplasm is also beginning to find application in Asia outside of India, in southern and East Africa and in Latin America.


5.42 Soybean was originally domesticated in China and is now cultivated throughout East and Southeast Asia, in the Americas (particularly Brazil and the United States) and to a very limited extent in sub-Saharan Africa and the Near East. In the Northern Hemisphere, its cultivation now extends from the tropics to 52º north latitude. The main objective of future research related to crop production is to develop soybean varieties that give a maximum contribution to the productivity and sustainability of the cereal-based cropping systems of the moist savannahs of Africa. Major traits that are under improvement are the ability to cause suicidal germination of seed of Striga hermontheca, nitrogen fixation and phosphorus-use efficiency. Cropping systems research will be conducted to develop appropriate technologies to increase productivity and sustainability, including resistance to pests, diseases and pod shattering.

Oil crops


5.43 The coconut palm is a pantropical crop, grown on approximately 9.3 million hectares in 82 countries. Many of the producing countries are small islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans and in the Caribbean. Coconut is both their primary subsistence crop and their only significant source of export earnings. There are few, if any, alternative crops that can substitute for coconut in these countries. Coconut is the major tree-crop component in several agroforestry systems throughout the world, although its wide use in home gardens is probably not reflected in official production statistics.

5.44 The current research priorities of the international Coconut Resources Network (COGENT) include the development of an international coconut genetic resources database to enhance dissemination of genetic resources data; collecting to secure germplasm in areas that are threatened by genetic erosion and to fill gaps in national collections; conservation in national and regional field gene banks; germplasm evaluation to identify suitable varieties for farmers; development of other complementary conservation methods and molecular methods for assessing genetic diversity; and promoting safe germplasm movement. Future research priorities include: application of research results to promote efficient genetic diversity assessment; safe germplasm movement; and effective conservation and exchange.


5.45 About 21.7 million hectares are planted to groundnut in the world, of which 13.8 million are in Asia (India, 8.5 million; China, 3.6 million), 6.8 million in sub-Saharan Africa and 0.5 million in Central and South America. Groundnut is grown under a wide range of environmental conditions in areas between 40º south latitude and 40º north latitude. The main constraints to productivity in Asia and Africa are diseases and insect pests, unpredictable and unreliable rainfall, low soil fertility, lack of improved agronomic practices and production technology, lack of technology-responsive cultivars adapted to local conditions, low financial inputs and lack of suitable small-scale farm implements and of the infrastructure to supply quality seed of the currently available improved cultivars. Aflatoxin contamination in the field and during storage reduces the marketability of the produce. Foliar diseases, virus diseases, aflatoxin contamination of the produce, foliar and soil pests, nematodes, drought and low soil fertility are priority research targets within the production systems of the semi-arid tropics.


5.46 Many vegetables are grown in developing countries. The kinds vary considerably from place to place, with strong social preferences dictating the choice of species used. Vegetables provide a valuable source of income to producers near large urban areas. As a group they are high yielding, and they are well adapted to small-scale operations if markets are close and to large-scale operations as infrastructure improves and transportation and cold storage become available. All income groups need and prefer vegetables as supplementary foods, and demand in developing countries is expected to increase by 3.4 percent per year throughout the 1990s.

5.47 There is much scope for varietal improvement. Poor marketing facilities are also a constraint given the perishability of many vegetables. Modest increases in production can lead to temporary gluts, and a major research need in many areas is to extend the production period.

Tropical forages

5.48 Grasses and legumes are intermediate products that contribute directly to livestock production and indirectly to more sustainable land use. They also have uses other than as feed. There is widespread use of legumes as ground cover in tree and fruit plantations, as green-manure crops and in natural fallows for soil improvement and weed control. Grasses and shrub legumes are used as barriers for controlling soil erosion. Pastures are used in rotation with crops with the aim of improving the biological, chemical and physical properties of soil in addition to providing feed for livestock.

5.49 The present focus of research is to develop forage components for specific agro-ecosystem niches in Latin America and Southeast Asia where a demand has been identified. Examples include ground cover for tree crops, legumes for fallow improvement on hillsides, short-term pastures for crop-livestock systems, dry-season fodder for dual-purpose cattle and multipurpose grasses and legumes for intensive farming systems.


5.50 Livestock and their products contribute about 29 percent to the total value of the production of agriculture, forestry and fisheries in developing countries. Their share amounts to 19 percent in sub-Saharan Africa, 28 percent in Asia, 35 percent in the Near East and North Africa and 38 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean. However, these figures underestimate the substantial contribution that livestock frequently make to crop production through draught power and manure.

5.51 Animal products are the only reliable sources of vitamins B and D, zinc and iron. Meat and milk are highly income-elastic products. Their consumption increases with incomes and urbanization. Given economic growth and technological improvements in developing countries, livestock’s contribution to agricultural production can therefore be expected to increase.

5.52 Cattle are especially important in Latin America and the Caribbean and in the warm semi-arid tropics and cool tropics of sub-Saharan Africa and India (for milk). Sheep and/or goats are important in the Near East and North Africa, East and southern Africa, semi-arid West Africa and temperate South America. Although small ruminants provide only a small proportion of the global production of meat and milk, the aggregate data mask their importance in some regions. It is estimated that they provide 30 percent of the meat consumed in the Near East and North Africa and 20 percent of that consumed in sub-Saharan Africa. Small ruminants are also important generators of cash income.

5.53 Milk accounts for 26 percent of the value of sub-Saharan livestock production, beef for 37 percent, sheep and goat meat for 14 percent, pig meat for 5 percent and poultry for 8 percent. During the past two decades, increases in production have resulted largely from the expansion of herds and flocks, rather than from improved animal productivity. Domestic animals enhance the economic viability and sustainability of farming systems. They diversify production and management options, increase total farm production and income, provide year-round employment and provide insurance in times of need. Sales of livestock products provide funds for purchasing critically needed crop inputs and for financing farm investments. Livestock often form the major capital reserve of farming households.

5.54 Among domestic livestock species, ruminants have special importance because they convert into edible products crop residues, by-products, weeds and other biomass that cannot be directly consumed as food by humans. Ruminants provide the only practical means for using vast areas of natural grasslands in regions where low, unreliable or seasonally limited rainfall combined with poor acid soils, or rugged, hilly and steep land make crop production impractical. In crop-producing regions, traction raises crop productivity while manure enriches the soil. In addition, ruminants provide farmers with the economic incentive required to plant nitrogen-fixing forage crops and to maintain pastures in crop rotations, which reduce erosion, conserve soil moisture and enhance soil fertility. The key to enhancing these positive aspects of livestock production is good policy and management. Policies leading to the expansion of grasslands have been mainly associated with deforestation in Latin America and the Caribbean.

5.55 Poultry and swine account for almost half the monetary and nutritive value of livestock in developing countries. Evidence from Asia and from Latin America and the Caribbean indicates that as the demand for chicken and pig meat increases, more intensive production systems are adopted and technology from developed and other developing countries is rapidly and effectively applied in these systems. Both the poultry and pig sectors also benefit substantially from private-sector research. The yak, domesticated buffalo, camel and dromedary, alpaca, llama and reindeer have all been subject to only limited research efforts.

5.56 Seasonal shortages and low nutritional value of feed resources are the most widespread technical constraints for livestock in developing countries. Studies in Africa indicate that for both pastoral and village livestock systems in different agro-ecological zones the intensity of livestock production is closely related to the intensity of human activities, and to a much lesser extent related to the distribution of natural grazing resources (Wint and Bourn, 1994). These findings suggest that a trend exists for livestock systems to become less dependent on the availability of extensive rangelands and for livestock production to be more closely related to the more secure feed resources associated with proximity to human settlements and water.

5.57 Although pasture and forage remain the most important animal feedstuffs in the developing world, their supply is increasing at too slow a rate to meet increasing demands for livestock products. The closer integration of livestock into cropping systems, the establishment of improved fodder crops, including shrubs and trees, and the installation of local processing plants for the better utilization of crop by-products are thus required to offset the increasing use of imported feedgrains caused by intensive ruminant production and the expansion of poultry and swine production.

5.58 Only a few livestock species, and a large number of special breeds, are used to produce meat, milk, skins and draught power under different environments. It is the genetic diversity contained in such breeds that holds the key for future improvements in the efficiency of livestock production. The CGIAR, together with FAO, is playing a leading role in the conservation, improvement and utilization of plant genetic resources and advances in molecular biology to open new opportunities to improve further on the successes achieved through breeding. Similar opportunities may arise in the animal world, by applying progress made in genetic mapping to the identification of genes governing important traits in domestic animals to increase their productivity. Furthermore, because of the extremely high cost of conservation of animal germplasm, the CGIAR has a key role to play in developing methodologies to determine which resources justify conservation.

5.59 In developing countries the major diseases can be grouped into three categories: largely viral diseases, such as foot-and-mouth disease; vector-borne parasitic diseases, such as trypanosomiasis, for which control measures may exist but are not applicable; and intensification diseases, such as mastitis. The major disease constraint in Africa remains trypanosomiasis, the only disease that precludes the introduction of non-tolerant cattle without some preventive measures. Unlike Africa, Latin America is free from major bovine diseases with the exception of foot-and-mouth disease. Asia is also free of major infectious animal disease problems in cattle and buffalo.

5.60 Vector-borne diseases and internal parasites remain two of the most important animal health constraints in developing countries. Among the former, the most serious are tsetse-transmitted trypanosomiasis, which is a major constraint in large parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and a form of theileriosis, East Coast fever, which is a major constraint in East and southern Africa. Although most indigenous cattle possess some natural resistance to ticks and tick-borne diseases, exotic Bos taurus breeds are acutely susceptible. Progress being made in understanding the biology of these diseases, the nature of host defence mechanisms and novel means of vaccination provides a basis for developing improved methods of control for other economically important livestock diseases worldwide.

5.61 The CGIAR has identified a number of areas on which research could be focused over the next decade. Areas for global research include:

Areas for ecoregional research include:

An area for both global and ecoregional research is:

Forestry and agroforestry

5.62 Tropical forests cover only one-seventh of the earth’s land area, yet their importance is greater than this implies. In addition to wood, forests supply many non-timber products including foods and beverages, fibres, resins, building materials, fodder, ornamentals, medicines and fuel. More important, they provide environmental services, notably watershed protection, climate regulation, protection and improvement of soils, and provide a habitat for wild plants and animals. A wide range of cultural, spiritual and recreational benefits are also derived from tropical forests. They are an important component of the earth’s global carbon budget and the repository of perhaps half of all species of living things.

5.63 Investment in forestry research and the human resources available to conduct research in developing countries are both low in comparison to the agricultural sector and in comparison to the value of goods and services derived from forests. The CGIAR system, through the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), has suggested that public forestry research may be focused on:

5.64 One approach to forestry research is to develop agroforestry practices that stabilize the agricultural side of the forest margin by the integration of trees in farmland for the production of timber and non-wood forest products. Multistrata agroforests, as developed in Southeast Asia, are the ultimate example of such systems, but little research has been done to develop such systems elsewhere in the tropics. So far there is little understanding of how these multistrata agroforests, which are an attractive alternative to slash-and-burn agriculture, diversify agro-ecosystems and enhance biological diversity, sequester carbon and affect greenhouse gas emission or sinks. Similarly, little is known of the economic and social benefits of these systems in terms of cash generation, food security and their ability to alleviate poverty and diversify economic returns. Research is also needed into methods to improve agroforestry systems by integrating trees into farming systems in a way that develops a mosaic of land uses on both the farm and landscape scales. In this way, the productivity of the systems can be achieved, while also improving their ecological and economic stability. The genetic improvement of agroforestry tree species for an increased range of timber and non-wood forest products should increase overall economic returns from a unit of land in the longer term, so triggering improvements in marketing infrastructure and in incentives to grow trees. Potential gains in this area are high, since little improvement work has been done to date on agroforestry species. There are also continued research efforts required to develop alternatives to slash-and-burn cultivation practices.


5.65 Fisheries play an important role in food production, income generation and the provision of employment in developing countries. According to the International Centre for Living Aquatic Resources Management (ICLARM), the number of full-time fishermen in developing countries has been estimated at 12.9 million, of whom 80 percent live in Asia, 12 percent in sub-Saharan Africa, 6 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean and 2 percent in the Near East and North Africa.

5.66 In addition, there are many millions of part-time fishermen. Water covers 70 percent of the earth’s surface, and the total production of aquatic commodities amounts to 95 million tonnes annually, of which 79 percent are finfish, 5 percent crustacea, 9 percent molluscs and 7 percent seaweeds. Fish and fish products provide 20 percent of animal protein and 4 percent of dietary protein in developing countries, but these averages mask the fact that in several countries this share is at least twice as high. The total gross value of world fisheries production is almost US$25 billion per year, of which 52 percent originates from marine-capture fish, 18 percent from inland-capture fish, 16 percent from inland-culture fish and 14 percent from marine-culture fish. Fish account for 5.6 percent of the total value of production of agriculture, forestry and fisheries.

5.67 Of the global aquatic production, which has grown impressively fast in the last 12 years, 16 percent originates from aquaculture; in value terms this share amounts to 29 percent. Aquaculture differs from capture fisheries just as agriculture does from hunting and gathering. Priorities for research topics on aquaculture need to be based on the principles outlined below.

5.68 Despite its obvious fragility, the resource base for aquaculture in the developing world is still poorly understood. Research for most tropical fisheries is still rudimentary, although national research capacity is developing to meet the challenge. Several research needs are priorities, including: cost-effective data acquisition, especially as it relates to fisheries resources, aquaculture development and biological diversity; developing a holistic approach; integrating biological and social science research; exploring the impact of protected areas; studying the potential of aquaculture and its relationship to the environment; extending the genetic improvement of aquaculture species; overcoming aquatic environment degradation; and analysing the impact of research. Several other topics, including improving post-harvest handling of fish and diagnosis and management of disease in aquaculture are also important.

Integrated approaches

5.69 While commodity approaches to agricultural science will remain important in research efforts over the next one to two decades, there is little doubt that some of the underlying themes are critical for the contribution that research can make to improved food security:

5.70 The CGIAR system has identified specific soil and water research topics underlying many commodity research efforts and requiring additional attention (CGIAR/TAC, 1996b):

5.71 In its review of policy and management research (CGIAR/TAC, 1996c) the realignment of agricultural research to the new economic realities, with economic liberalization and democratization as key words, was stressed. The interplay between the private and public sectors, and more people’s participation in the setting of the research agendas, are essential elements.

5.72 Together these elements form components for revisiting both national and international research agendas. A realization must arise of the need to provide results for a large section of the poorest farming community that does not have access to the inputs that, for example, characterized the green revolution. Increasing concern for the environment and sustainable use of natural resources point to additional research efforts directed at the optimal use of land and water without major reliance on external inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, irrigation water and tractors. There is increasing consumer demand for ecologically grown produce both in industrialized and developing countries. The need for research that will also allow increased production where external inputs are not available, or unwanted, constitutes a complement to the more traditional research agenda for increased food production that must be pursued.


6. Agricultural research as a priority

The continuing need for agricultural research

6.1 A more productive agriculture is critical to achieving greater food security and to alleviating poverty. With the world’s population expected to rise by 88 million per year in the next decade, the additional food required will have to be provided through the higher productivity of existing resources. While agriculture is currently the major user of land, water and biological resources in the world,(3) increased population pressure will result in increased competition for those resources. The scope for expanding cultivable land is extremely limited and the demand for fresh water is expected to increase as a result of rapid growth in urban population and industrialization. Projections by IRRI suggest that most Asian countries will have severe water problems by the year 2025 (IRRI, 1995).

6.2 Future agricultural research will have to focus on production technologies that maximize the benefits of the natural resources available to agriculture, while at the same time protecting and restoring those resources for future use. Research must also address the needs of the poor who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, particularly in low-potential areas where productivity increases will be more difficult to achieve and the management of scarce natural resources is more critical. More research to improve the sustainability of forest resources is important not only because of their role in conserving the environment and biological diversity, but also because about 350 million people, most of them very poor, depend on forests for their subsistence. Managing and using natural resources for greater productivity and to conserve the resource base will require new science-based technologies and strategies.

6.3 The impressive past contributions of science and technology to meeting food needs occurred through investment in agricultural research. Future progress can only occur through continued or increased investments in agricultural research, which now faces new and broader challenges. Research must provide technologies to maintain the momentum of advances made to date and to raise production even higher, but must do so within a context of conserving the resources upon which agriculture depends and protecting the natural environment from any possible detrimental effects associated with agricultural intensification. Development of low-cost technologies is also essential to increase incomes and employment of the rural poor.

6.4 Within this framework, increases in food production need to be achieved at low food prices, given the large number of urban poor and the high percentage of rural poor who derive their incomes from non-agricultural sources and who spend a large portion of their income on food. This can only happen through cost-reducing technological improvements that are environmentally sustainable. Without increased research to improve the efficiency of land and water resources, productivity of major food crops is likely to fall, prices are bound to rise and the poorest segments of society are likely to be adversely affected.

6.5 Several recent developments offer important opportunities for technological and policy changes to have a wide impact on rural and urban poverty and food security. They include:

Setting the research agenda

6.6 To capitalize on new developments and to increase the impact of agricultural science, the research agenda must be clearly defined and articulated. A combination of market reforms, trade liberalization, greater concern for resource and environmental sustainability and a more active private sector are placing new demands on research priorities in both developed and developing countries. The scientific community is being called upon to broaden its research agenda to give greater attention to alleviation of poverty, environmental and resource management, preservation of biological diversity and policy analysis.

6.7 The challenges that confront agricultural research and determine the global research agenda can be summarized in three questions:

6.8 The ability of agricultural research to respond to these questions will depend on the choices of research investments and strategies made by governments and institutions in both developed and developing countries, which shape the agricultural research agenda. The research agenda must include the social and cultural perspectives associated with agriculture and food security in developing countries. In particular, socio-economic research is important to understand the behaviour of households and factors affecting that behaviour.

6.9 In the past, the major research impacts have occurred through varietal improvements. In the future, varietal improvements must continue to emphasize increased productivity potential and resistance to pests and abiotic stress. The new biotechnologies hold promise to accelerate and improve the efficiency of traditional breeding techniques. Another area that emerges as particularly important for this agenda is crop and natural-resource management to improve input-use efficiency, to protect natural resources and to develop more sustainable production systems. Policy research needs to be pursued both at national and international levels to identify and prioritize research agendas and to educate policy-makers in the importance of agricultural research in solving national problems of food security and poverty.


6.10 Recent advances in the biological sciences have significant implications for the agricultural research agenda. Biotechnology, particularly the genetic engineering of plants and animals to meet specific needs, holds much potential for meeting the challenges of increasing productivity and conserving natural resources. Plants and animals that use water more efficiently, grow in highly adverse conditions, resist pests and diseases and utilize fewer inputs have enormous potential to contribute to the sustainability of agricultural production systems and are representative of the range of possibilities that may develop through biotechnology. The engineering of biological control agents is another example with wide applicability to agricultural production constraints. However, the research agenda must also address areas of concern with biotechnology. Biosafety of engineered organisms is one concern that must be approached cautiously with appropriate scientific analysis of the types of risks these organisms pose. Intellectual property rights and rights of access to and ownership of genetic resources are other key issues to be addressed. They raise difficult political problems, which are made more complex by the emergence of many private actors and which need to be resolved to maximize the potential benefits of biotechnology in agricultural research.

Natural-resource management

6.11 The environmental costs of increasing agricultural productivity must now be addressed through increased research on the management of natural resources – soil, water, plants and animals – for agricultural use. Effective soil and water management practices are critical to the future sustainability of food production. If the productivity of irrigated agriculture is to increase, more efficient management strategies for both soil and water will be required. Increasing water supplies through storage or movement is not a likely possibility. As urban and industrial demand for water increases,(4) the need for water-use efficiency in agriculture will become critical as will the need to reduce any potential contamination of water supplies by agricultural production practices both on site and off site. Research is needed to improve irrigation and to develop technology to protect and conserve soil and water. In brief, effective management technologies and strategies for increased resource-use efficiency must be developed.

6.12 Biological resources similarly present an expanded scope for research. High-yielding plant varieties and animal breeds played significant roles in past productivity increases and will continue to do so in the future. However, biological diversity, which provides the genetic variability necessary to develop new varieties and breeds, is declining at an alarming rate. This decline threatens the availability of germplasm needed to solve future productivity, environmental, disease and pest problems. Much of this diversity is located in farmers’ fields and pastures in the form of landraces and native breeds. The research agenda must address issues of appropriate technologies for conservation, maintenance and utilization of these resources as well as those of related wild species. However, the agenda must go well beyond that and address a wider range of interactions, both positive and negative, between biological diversity and agricultural practices. This includes technology to meet the increased need for food without expanding agriculture into areas rich in biological diversity; sustainable management technologies for common lands such as rangeland and forests; development of agricultural systems that conserve diversity within the system itself; and developing conservation strategies and knowledge systems based on proper understanding of needs of households that depend on the ecosystem for survival and indigenous knowledge of existing resources.

Policy analysis

6.13 Policy research is needed in most developing countries. Policy decisions are too often guided by inadequate documentation of the specifics of the situation and by insufficient knowledge of likely future consequences of the policy decisions being contemplated. In addition, to be sustainable policy decisions must be understood, accepted and supported by society. This cannot occur without a thorough debate. Policy research has a critical role to play in fostering such informed debate.

6.14 Results of policy research should educate the public as well as policy-makers regarding the consequences of inappropriate price policies that encourage inefficient use of inputs (e.g. overuse of irrigation water and fertilizers because of subsidies) and that result in unsustainable cropping systems (e.g. monocropping because of high support prices). Agricultural policy research should address real or perceived conflicts between agricultural and environmental issues. A demand-side analysis to explain the consequences of higher food prices on poor urban and rural consumers would help build public support for agricultural research.

6.15 Given that observed practices are the aggregate result of many decisions taken by numerous farm households, policy research must incorporate a thorough understanding of decisions taken at the household level, requiring the collection of large data sets. In addition, policy-analysis research conducted in an international framework will enable policy-makers in developing countries to compare the effects of alternative polices. International research centres are well positioned to facilitate cross-country collaborations in such policy research.

Socio-economic research

6.16 Extensive socio-economic research is needed to understand the interaction and interdependence of households with natural resources. Population pressures and a lack of adequate agricultural technologies, among other factors, are major forces reducing the ability of the poor to support themselves from their natural-resource base. Agricultural research must involve clients whose collective behaviour affects the sustainability of the natural resources of the environment.



(1) See WFS companion paper 6 Lessons from the green revolution: towards a new green revolution

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(2) The term "land"includes all the natural resources contained on the earth's surface: soil, terrain, water, climte and weather.

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(3) See WFS companion paper 4 Food requirements and population growth.

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(4) See WFS companion paper 7 Food production: the critical role of water.

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