image: the brown plant hopper
Experts say that during the food surpluses of recent decades, governments and development agencies lost focus on the importance of helping poor countries improve their agriculture.
The budgets of institutions that delivered the world from famine in the 1970s, including the rice institute, have stagnated or fallen, even as the problems they were trying to solve became harder.
“People felt that the world food crisis was solved, that food security was no longer an issue, and it really fell off the agenda,” said Robert Zeigler, the director general of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.
The brown plant hopper, an insect no bigger than a gnat, is multiplying by the billions and chewing through rice paddies in East Asia, threatening the diets of many poor people. The damage to rice crops, occurring at a time of scarcity and high prices, could have been prevented. Researchers at the institute here say that they know how to create rice varieties resistant to the insects but that budget cuts have prevented them from doing so.
The institute is the world’s main repository of rice seeds as well as genetic and other information about rice, the crop that feeds nearly half the world’s people. But at the International Rice Research Institute, greenhouses have peeling paint and holes in their screens and walls. Hallways are dotted with empty offices. In the 1980s, the institute employed five entomologists, or insect experts, overseeing a staff of 200. Now it has one entomologist with a staff of eight.
Similar troubles plague other centers in Asia, Africa and Latin America that work on crop productivity in poor countries. Agricultural experts have complained about the flagging efforts for years and warned of the risks. “Nobody was listening,” said Thomas Lumpkin, director general of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico.
Now, a reckoning is at hand. Growth of the global food supply has slowed as the population has continued to increase, and as economic growth is giving millions of poor people the money to buy more food. With demand beginning to outstrip supply, prices have soared, and food riots have erupted that have undermined the stability of foreign governments. World leaders are scrambling to respond.
The ‘west’ continues to cut research funding
But cuts in agricultural research continue. The United States is in the midst of slashing, by as much as 75 percent, its $59.5 million annual support for a global research network that focuses on improving crops vital to agriculture in poor countries. That network includes the rice institute.
The biggest cutbacks have come in donations to agriculture in poor countries from the governments of wealthy countries and in loans from development institutions that the wealthy governments control, like the World Bank. Such projects include not only research on pests and crops but also programs to help farmers adopt improved methods in their fields.
Adjusting for inflation and exchange rates, the wealthy countries, as a group, cut such donations by more than half from 1980 to 2006, to $2.8 billion a year from $6 billion.
“Agriculture has been so productive and done so well, people have kind of lost sight of how fragile it really is,” said Jan Leach, a plant pathologist at Colorado State University who works with rice. “It’s as if we have lost track of the fact that food is linked to agriculture, which is linked to human survival.”