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Agricultural research has been one of the keys to increasing food production over the past half century at a rate that has outstripped rapid increases in population. As per person availability of arable land, water and other resources continues to shrink, further commitment and advances in research will be critical to ensure that future generations will be better fed, clothed and housed than they are today.

The Value of Agricultural Research

AGRICULTURAL research has been a major factor in increasing global food production by 80 percent since the mid-1960s, with more than half of the increase in developing countries. As can be seen from the bar chart below, yields of maize, rice and wheat more than doubled in many regions during the period l 960-94 as a result of the introduction of improved varieties, irrigation, fertilizers and improved crop management. Research advances have also contributed to food security by developing improved breeds and varieties of livestock, fish and trees to enhance livestock production, aquaculture, agroforestry and mixed farming systems. This has had a number of major effects on developing countries:

Positive effects on the environment have included reduction in the use of marginal land for agriculture. Agricultural research has also reduced the need for fertilizers and pesticides as a result of integrated plant nutrition and integrated pest management.

Average yield of rice wheat and maize by region 1960 and 1994 (tonnes/hectare)

Returns on agricultural research





South America



























developing countries



'If international donors were to eliminate all funding of agricultural research, food grain 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 the donor funding were to increase by 50 percent, food grain production would increase by 40 percent and the number of malnourished children would decrease by 46 million (30 percent).

Role of Research in Global Food Security and Agricultural Development,
World Food Summit, 1996

A Research Agenda the future

AGRICULTURAL research faces a tough challenge. It has to meet the rising demand for food at destining prices. It has to provide a catalyst for the evolution of rural economies so that they can provide employment and income for the rural poor. And these goals must be achieved in a way that protects and enhances the natural resource base on which agriculture depends. In addition, more research is needed to improve the sustainability of forest resources because 350 million people, most of them very poor, depend on them for subsistence. Most of all, poor people must influence the research agendas to ensure that they meet their needs. Three of the major thrusts for future agricultural research are:


Biotechnology can produce plants and animals that use water more efficiently, grow in highly adverse conditions, resist pests and diseases, and utilize fewer inputs. These products have enormous potential to contribute to sustainable agricultural production. However, these organisms must be evolved with great attention to safety issues.

Natural resource management

Increased research is needed on the management of the natural resources on which agriculture depends - soil, water, plants and animals. More efficient management strategies are needed for both soil and water. Research is needed to improve irrigation and to improve technologies for the protection and conservation of both soil and water. In addition, the research agenda must address issues of appropriate technologies for the conservation, maintenance and utilization of the diversity of biological resources needed on the farm.

Policy analysis

Policy research is desperately needed in most developing countries where decisions are too often guided by inadequate documentation and insufficient knowledge. Subjects that require investigation include inappropriate price policies that encourage inefficient use of inputs and that encourage unsustainable cropping systems. Policy research must also include a thorough understanding of decisions taken at the household level.

Agricultural research expeditures

Finding the Funding

INVESTMENT in agricultural research d grew fast during the 1 960s and 1 970s, more slowly in the 1980s and has been stagnant during the 1990s. In developing countries, the proportion of the total agricultural gross domestic product spent on research is about 0.5 percent, compared to 2-4 percent in developed countries.

Research investment must be increased now to meet the growing demand for food without price increases or deterioration of the agricultural resource base. To improve food security in a sustainable manner, developing countries will have to invest at least one percent of their agricultural output in research over the short term and two percent over the long term. Investment of this magnitude will not be forthcoming unless the global research system is improved in ways suggested in the box on the right.

The reward for transforming and investing further in agricultural research will be a thriving agricultural sector, a necessary condition for economic growth, providing food, income and employment to the poor, and improving resource conservation and environmental protection.

Improving the Research System

The major components of the global agricultural research system are the National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) of developed and developing countries and the International Agricultural Research Centres (IARCs).

In 1995, developed countries' NARS accounted for about 48 percent of global research expenditures with about one-third of the scientists involved while developing country NARS accounted for the same proportion of research expenditures with nearty two-thirds of the scientists involved. The IARCs accounted for the balance of about 4 percent of global research expenditure.

There are a number of ways in which this system can be improved:

For further information, please contact:
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100 Rome, Italy
Information Division, Tel: (39-6) 5225-3276/5225-4781/5225-4243
Sustainable Development Department, Tel: (39-6) 5225-3037
Internet, or

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