A distinguished team of scientists working for, affiliated with, or funding the CGIAR system of international agricultural research centers has issued a call for a new Global Crop Improvement Network (GCIN). The statement is entitled “Improving global integration of crop research” (Reynolds et al) and appears in the July 28, 2017 issue of Science Magazine.
The GCIN would cover most staple crops and utilize field laboratories in different agroecosystems around the world, in order to better match plant genetic traits to unique, regional biotic and abiotic conditions impacting plant development and pest pressure. Reynolds et al argue that such a basic strategy is sound and was a key component of successes during the Green Revolution. Studies are cited reporting a benefit:cost ratio in response to CGIAR plant breeding research as high as 100:1.
The team acknowledges that crop breeding research and adaptation is “just one part of an equation that includes factors such as credit, market forces, national policy, etc.” They call for “new collaborative paradigms” with a broader array of stakeholders, to help forge agreement on the most important targets for research.
While acknowledging that plant breeding research and crop genetics is just one piece of a complex puzzle, the path forward promoted by Reynolds et al clearly does not deal with the fundamental problems raised by Dr. James Moseley in a piece in Geographic Review — for more see the blog “Chipping Away at a Dangerous Myth — GMOs are Key in Promoting Global Food Security” and items under the Hygeia Analytics tag “Food security”.
Reynolds et al suggest funding GCIN in part by re-allocation of the approximate $900 million annual budget of the CGIAR system, of which about $200 million currently supports plant breeding and varietal improvement, and secondly, through novel public-private partnerships. The team acknowledges that intellectual property concerns often complicate public-private partnerships, and can have undesirable impacts on the focus, direction, and impact of research investments.
It is not surprising that Reynolds et al do not address the host of issues around the role of genetic engineering in the proposed GCIN. Clearly, the benefit:cost ratio of today’s primary GE crop traits — herbicide resistant genes and Bt transgenic crops for insect control — is declining rapidly in the wake of overuse, inadequate attention to resistance management, the emergence and spread of resistant weeds and insects, and high cash costs.
Experience with major GE crops since 1996 drives home the point that the return to investment in agricultural research and technology development is clearly a function of the focus of research. In addition, how any emergent technology is utilized will determine whether the initial, per acre or per hectare benefit:cost ratio improves, declines, or stays the same.
For decades nearly all leaders, analysts, and institutions in the agriculture and food industry communities have believed, and argued, that any and all investments in ag research were, and remain a good thing. It is long past time to revisit that presumption and acknowledge that the “what for” and “how” of ag research is integral to:
- Its impact,
- Who gains and losses from research investments, and
- Whether there are solid reasons to believe that hoped for benefits will be sustained.
If and as the proposed GCIN moves forward, these issues deserve careful and open consideration as the mechanics, priorities, and funding of a future GCIN are spelled out in more detail.
Source: Reynolds MP et al. 2017. “Improving global integration of crop research,” Science Magazine, Vol 357, Issue 6349.