Agricultural research: time for action
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Rasolo, Francois. 2006. Agricultural research: time for action. Spore 122. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
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If they are to remain autonomous and adapt to local needs, national agricultural research institutes in the South must be able to count on political will and on dynamic researchers...
If they are to remain autonomous and adapt to local needs, national agricultural research institutes in the South must be able to count on political will and on dynamic researchers. Today, that is far from the case. Malagasy-born François Rasolo calls for a radical change. There is a risk that national agricultural research will simply wither away, unless it undergoes a complete overhaul. This critical state of affairs is due to some major sticking points. The first is that, for all the grandiose declarations of governments, they rarely see research as a priority. Politicians take little interest in it, partly due to inadequate information and partly because they often have preconceived ideas on the matter. They do not believe that researchers bring any immediate contribution to everyday problems and see them as living in ivory towers! For them, the idea of investing in research, sometimes for as long as 10 years, makes no sense at all. They have more pressing problems to deal with. The same is true of donors, who focus on education, health and AIDS. But failure to invest can lead to serious consequences. Just one example: a few years ago when the price of vanilla reached US$400 ( 336) a kilo in Madagascar, everyone started growing it willy nilly, without any kind of criteria. That was when it would have been sensible to continue research into the quality and grade of vanillin to meet the growing competition from Indonesia head on. No one did anything. Today, vanilla sells for US$30 ( 25) a kilo. These days, research has no place in the development plans of politicians. That is why in the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, in Madagascar or the Republic of the Congo, you will find little mention of it, if any at all. Only a few countries like Kenya have grasped its importance. So it s hardly surprising that research centres lack resources. The lack of interest on the part of governments is also a reason for donors not to make resources available since the leaders don t know what they want . As a result, initiatives to support research tend to come mainly from the North, and not from the countries themselves. Off the beaten track The researchers themselves are not without blame few of them show much initiative. All too often, they are very conventional in their choice of research field, rarely deviating from the classic areas of varieties and resistance to disease. They take no account of globalisation, even though this is now an unavoidable reality, and one which brings with it the need for sweeping changes when it comes to research options. In Madagascar, does it really make sense to struggle to get farmers producing as much rice as possible so they can feed the people in the name of the much-vaunted idea of food self-sufficiency, even though it may not always be profitable for the farmers to do so? Let s just think about it! Would it not be better to produce higher-priced niche varieties of rice for export to Europe and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and import cheap rice from Vietnam or Thailand for domestic consumption? Bio-fuels are becoming an interesting market we need to look ahead. Researchers are reluctant to stray from the beaten track. Working in familiar areas gives them a greater sense of security. Especially as the ranks of researchers are getting older. In Madagascar, one-third of them are over 50, and 10% are past retirement age. Often, they lack an open mind as well as general knowledge. Shut off within the confines of their own discipline, they pay little heed to what others are doing. So the coffee selector takes no interest in what is going on at the WTO summit in Hong Kong, even though it is the international market which will determine the future of this crop. Surfing on the internet still does not come naturally to everyone. That is a serious problem, for they no longer receive printed documents and are completely cut off. Research techniques are often outmoded, and inadequate resources are not entirely to blame. For example, biotechnologies are under-utilised. With the exception of a few countries, the South lags way behind. But if the North has the technologies, the South has the genes. On the issue of GMOs, many are content to reproduce the debates going on in the North. But it is very important that people be informed on this subject, that they understand how it works and become familiar with the rules so they can guard against the negative impacts when they reach our own countries. Political will is crucial There is an urgent need to rethink these attitudes and practices if we want to stay in the game and maintain a bit of initiative. Lack of government support and daring on the part of researchers have serious consequences for the independence of national research systems. These days, research is increasingly financed by private funds. For instance, in Madagascar, the Americans with the Millennium Challenge Account put US$100 million ( 84 million) on the table to fund agricultural development projects focused on applied research that specifically targets certain sectors, because they had an interest in those areas. So researchers had no choice but to redirect their programmes to fit in with their wishes. Today, the priority is for competitive research funds. Donors choose from various projects put forward by researchers in response to the needs expressed by farmers organisations. That is a good thing, for it encourages researchers to be innovative. They are used to receiving regular funding, but not to having to struggle to present solid and original proposals within a strict timeframe. The same is true for European tenders, which they rarely know how to apply for. That is one area where they really do need some training. If we don t want to reach the stage where our national research bodies are stripped of all autonomy, it will take a real act of political will. As a starting point, we need to see a declaration in principle from our governments, asserting that this research is essential. We need them to say where they want to go, and what they want to do and can do for research, as part of their agricultural development plans. The opinions expressed in Viewpoint are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of CTA.
SubjectsINSTITUTIONS AND SERVICES;
- CTA Spore (English)