Feed the Future
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Are donors pulling back on agriculture research funding?

This blog post was written by Fatima Arkin and originally appeared on Devex.

Three-quarters of the world’s poorest people depend almost entirely on agriculture for subsistence and income. One in nine people in the world today are undernourished, according to the United Nations, and World Bank data shows humanity needs to produce at least 50 percent more food by 2050 to feed an estimated 9 billion people.

As the world grapples with rapid population growth, climate change and other serious threats to food security, the international development community is pushing for radical change across the global food and agriculture system to facilitate greater productivity.

A researcher at Southern Horticultural Research Institute in Vietnam, where the Asian Development Bank provides technological and research training support. Are international donors doing enough to support long-term food security? Photo by: ADB / CC BY-NC-ND

Sustainable Development Goal 2, “zero hunger,” emphasizes the need for increased investment to enhance agricultural productive capacity in developing countries. Meanwhile, the vast majority of international donors acknowledge that public investment in research and development is critical to achieving the technological advances that will help the world grow more nutritious and affordable foods. The International Fund for Agricultural Development, for instance, says that productivity growth in agriculture can be up to four times more effective in reducing poverty than growth resulting from other sectors.

In 2008, total global investment in agricultural research and development was valued at almost $32 billion. But according to agriculture economists and experts, there is growing anecdotal evidence that donor investments in agriculture research are leveling off, raising questions over whether or not international donors are doing enough to support long-term food security as they grapple with other competing priorities.

“Definitely, agriculture research and development investment as an overall amount and as a proportion of agriculture investment in general is at least stagnating and probably declining,” said Rinn Self, a policy and program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “We’ve done some research ourselves looking through the DAC and what we’ve noticed is that disbursements are flat for sure, but it also looks to us like commitments are down, too. It’s something that we’re very concerned about.”

After a decade of slow growth in the 1990s, global public investment in agriculture research and development increased by over 20 percent from 2000 to 2008. The single most important reason was the drastic surge in global food prices, which peaked in mid-2008. International prices for staple foods, such as wheat and maize, more than doubled in a few years while those for rice doubled in the first few months of 2008 alone. Food riots erupted from Egypt to Haiti.

In response to the crisis, the G8 countries pledged $20 billion to agricultural development at their 2009 Summit in L’Aquila, Italy. The pledges increased to $22 billion at the Pittsburgh G20 summit when other nations stepped up to provide aid.

The high-profile political commitments revived the interest of traditional bilateral and multilateral donors in agricultural research. The European Union pledged $3.8 billion to agricultural development. In 2010, President Obama’s L’Aquila pledge of $3.5 billion over three years became Feed the Future — the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative.

That same year, the World Bank developed and became trustee of the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program at the request of the leaders of the G20. The program’s primary objective is to improve food security in the world’s poorest countries through more effective investment in agriculture. As of September 2013, the initiative has received pledges amounting to $1.3 billion from some of the world’s largest bilateral donors and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, a global partnership between agriculture researchers better known as CGIAR, doubled its funding between 2008 and 2013 to $1 billion. Similarly, the nine-member alliance of the Association of International Research and Development Centers for Agriculture also roughly doubled their funding during this time.

But it has been a different story over the past two years as the momentum behind food security subsided, according to Prabhu Pingali, founding director of the Tata-Cornell agriculture and nutrition initiative and an agriculture economics professor at Cornell University... Read more on Devex.