Farm Researcher CGIAR Budget Rises to $1 Billion in Hunger Fight

CGIAR, the world’s largest agricultural research partnership, said its funding rose to $1 billion this year, double the group’s budget five years ago amid increased government concern about food security.

Money from donors including the U.S. and the World Bank is helping expand basic research, such as mapping the genome of food crops including millet, pigeon peas and cassava to develop improved varieties, CGIAR Chief Executive Officer Frank Rijsberman said by phone from Montpellier, France.

The world food price index tracked by the United Nations’ Food & Agriculture Organization stood at 206.3 points in November, almost double from a decade ago as changing diets and population growth have boosted prices for everything from cooking oil to dairy products. Food prices jumped to a record in 2008.

“Food security has come back to a much more prominent place on the agenda,” Rijsberman said. “The 2007-08 price increase definitely woke people up to the fact that they had been complacent.”

CGIAR oversees 15 research institutes including the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, or Cimmyt, and the International Rice Research Institute. Its 10,000 scientists and other staff focus on agricultural research for developing countries, including a rice program that CGIAR says can lift 150 million people out of poverty and reduce the number of undernourished people in Asia by 62 million by 2035.

While development goals for some areas such as water and sanitation have been reached, that’s “definitely not” the case for nutrition, with about 25 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa still going hungry, according to Rijsberman.

Development Investment

“Agricultural research is pretty much the best development investment you can make,” Rijsberman said. “Public research was definitely way behind the private sector, and this allows us to catch up.”

A dollar invested in agricultural research creates about $9 in benefits, including money in farmers’ pockets as well as health benefits measured by economists as disease-adjusted life years, according to Rijsberman. Donors include the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank as well as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, he said.

“A billion dollars might sound like a lot but Monsanto is spending more than that by itself,” Rijsberman said. “We need to be in that game, discover new genes, but then the big challenge is to go from all that genome information to an actual crop.”

CGIAR has an advantage through its field stations that allow for crop testing and selecting varieties throughout the developing world, according to the CEO.

Recent crops resulting from CGIAR research include drought-tolerant corn for Africa, as well as “scuba rice” for Asia that can withstand flooding, both of which come from research that was started 10 to 20 years ago, he said.

“A lot of this agricultural research is long-term,” Rijsberman said. “Now we have a lot of money to again fill the pipeline.”

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