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Bill Gates Rescue Package November 05, 2003
By Devinder Sharma
Bill Gates donation of US $ 25 million for biofortification -
breeding crops with higher levels of micronutrients - is an effort to
provide a life-saving shot to the dying family of public-sector
international agricultural research institutes. Ironically, the
Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR),
responsible for ushering in the green revolution technology, is now
seriously grappling for its own survival.
Faced with huge staff layoffs, drastic cut in research programmes,
declining research output, vanishing financial commitments, the CGIAR
is contemplating a series of mergers to stay afloat. Gasping for
breadth, the CGIAR is even considering the merger of two of its
premier institutes - the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)
at Los Banos, in the Philippines, and the International Crop Research
Centre for Wheat and Maize (CIMMYT), in Mexico City.
Such has been the desperation that the CGIAR deviated from its stand
of public good when in 2002 it decided to take on board Syngenta
Foundation. This major shift in its known public image had prompted
the CG's committee of non-government organisations to freeze its
relationship with the organisation. The NGOs believe that the CG has
abdicated its responsibility of ensuring food security for the
world's poor by bringing in technologies that lead to economically
viable and sustainable farming systems. Instead the CGIAR has become
a service centre for the corporate interests.
The decade of the 1970s was the period when CGIAR's green revolution
technology, supported by appropriate national farm policies, ushered
in food self-sufficiency for many of the chronically food deficit
countries. Two decades later, in the 1990s, intensive agriculture had
begun to take its toll.
Not only the deteriorating environment, thousands of farmers all over
the world - from the technology-sophisticated and subsidy-rich United
States, European Union, Japan and Canada to the poor and marginalized
majority world in India, China, Argentina, Zimbabwe, Mexico, the
Philippines and you name it, an ever increasing number of farmers
have been involved in a serial death dance. Millions of others are
reeling under heavy debts, mortgaging in the process the meagre piece
of land on which they farm.
The CGIAR has remained a mute spectator. Not even once, did it find
it worthwhile to look into the real causes behind the new epidemic.
Ironically, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI),
which is a beneficiary of Bill Gates largesse, focussed more on how
to push in the market reforms. IFPRI is on the forefront of
suggesting dismantling of the national policies that had propelled
countries to take advantage of the green revolution technology. It
has even gone to the extent of suggesting that food aid, which is
governed by an inefficient UN Food Convention, be actually brought
under the World Trade Organisation. Isn't it time, the CGIAR begins
its restructuring by closing down the IFPRI - after all, where is the
need to duplicate what the World Bank can do more effectively!
The CG instead began to work for the corporate interests. It forgot
its duty and responsibility towards the toiling farmers. An
international research system, dominated entirely by western experts
who hardly knew a little about the ground realities in the developing
countries, sooner or later had to collapse. It became of victim of
its own flawed and donor-driven policies.
Bill Gates donation therefore comes as a blessing in disguise for the
failing CGIAR. Ever since the release of the dwarf wheat and rice
crop varieties, which was some 25-30 years ago, the international
agricultural research centres have only been engaged in maintenance
research - trying to protect what has already been evolved and
released. With no clear-cut direction and vision, the donors had
drifted away. The CGIAR therefore attempted a number of options -
suggesting special thematic research programmes under the 'challenge
programmes' - and then remained undecided on the approach to follow.
Food security was dumped for climate change, and sustainable
agriculture for market reforms and globalisation.
Biofortification was one of the misplaced research priorities that
CGIAR had proposed earlier but was unable to undertake in the light
of the public outcry. Nor did it make any research sense - research
programmes are no longer based on common sense - to breed for crops
that supplement micronutrients. The much-touted 'golden rice', which
contains a miniscule addition of beta-carotene in rice, has now been
widely accepted to be a misadventure. Distinguished scientists have
already gone on record saying that golden rice cannot address the
problem of Vit A deficiency.
In any case, fortified crops cannot eradicate nutrient deficiency.
Whether the newly evolved genetically-modified crops contains
supplements of Vit A, iron or zinc, these foods will not be helpful
for those who need it desperately - the malnourished. The reason is
simple. The human body requires adequate amount of fats to absorb
these nutrients, which is conspicuously absent in the malnourished
The hungry therefore gain nothing by eating these food supplements -
in turn would be able to afford less food because of the high price
as a result of more strict intellectual property control. The
biofortification programme in reality therefore is aimed at restoring
the credibility of the discredited biotechnology industry, which is
receiving a severe drubbing in Europe and elsewhere in Asia.
Bill Gates was probably not properly advised, and for obvious
reasons. Harvest Plus, a mere CGIAR public relations outfit, is in
dire need of financial resources and therefore used the emotional
card of hunger and malnutrition to seek funding from the Bill and
Melinda Gates Foundation. Not realising that 'hidden hunger', as
nutrient deficiency is generally referred to, cannot be removed by
providing the poor and hungry with an 'informed choice' of novel and
What the poor need is food - and which is abundantly available - and
that too rich in nutrients. In India, for instance, which is home to
one-third of the world's hungry and malnourished, more than 30
million tonnes of wheat and rice (which was a record 65 million
tonnes a year ago) are rotting in the open. The surplus food contain
an average of nine percent proteins - four to nine times more than
any fortified GM crop that scientists have developed so far.
A greater humanitarian purpose would have been served if Bill Gates
had instead donated grants to institutes and groups that would have
helped reach the available food to the poor, to ensure that the
hungry are adequately fed. The reality is that the poor and hungry do
not have the means to buy the food that is available, much of it
rotting in front of their dry eyes. If the hungry cannot afford to
buy their normal dietary requirement of rice (or for that matter any
other staple food) for a day, how does the CGIAR propose to make
available 'golden rice' to them is something that Bill Gates probably
forgot to ask. What is not being realised by the global scientific
and development community (including CGIAR) is that if they had aimed
at eradicating hunger in the first place, there would be no 'hidden
Bill Gates has to understand that biotechnology, the way it is being
promoted by corporate interests, has the potential to further the
great divide between haves and have-nots. The twin engines of
economic growth - technological revolution and globalisation - will
only widen the existing gap between the well fed and the hungry
masses. Biotechnology will, in reality, push more people in the
hunger trap. With public attention and resources being diverted from
the ground realities, hunger will only grow in the years to come.
CGIAR's blind support the corporate agenda, therefore, is a pointer
to the growing irrelevance of the international agricultural research
institutes. Such is the poverty of ideas to meet the growing food
needs of the world that the CGIAR has been gradually made to die a
premature death, much if it because of its own undoing. It is high
time the CGIAR board, which is firmly in the grip of the World Bank
and the Japanese government, follows what is enshrined in its
original mandate. The CGIAR should handover the 16 research centres
to the respective countries where these are located. This is what the
forefathers of the research system had said at the time of creating
the CGIAR, and they were so right.
Nothing can revitalise this dying horse. Not even Bill Gates with his
millions, unless of course the CGIAR is made to stand up for the
cause of the poor and marginalized farming communities #
(Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst.
Responses can be emailed at: [log in to unmask])