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July 20, 2008

Global food crisis gives International Rice Research Institute renewed attention

For more than a decade now, the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) has struggled with declining funding as the world thought it had won the war on food security.

The institute, which launched the Green Revolution in the 1960s that more than doubled global rice harvest, has faced a steady drop in its funding since the mid-1990s. The crunch curtailed IRRI’s work on areas that needed to be studied to ensure that rice production kept up with the world’s growing population, climate change and other barriers to sustainable agriculture.

But there is an upbeat mood in the cash-strapped IRRI now as it looks forward to fresh funding in the wake of a rice crisis that continues to burden billions of people who rely on the grain as their staple food. IRRI Director General Robert Zeigler said the rice crisis has revitalized interest in agricultural investment and the institute’s work.

“Policymakers are starting to understand that you can’t turn on and off agricultural research like a water faucet,” he said in an interview at his office overlooking experimental rice fields at IRRI headquarters in Los Banos town, Laguna province, 75 km south of Manila.

“There are indications that donors will increase their support for IRRI,” he added. “They understand that rice is absolutely critical to global food security and the work IRRI does will be essential in making sure that rice supplies in the future are met.”

Zeigler said IRRI has around $40 million in funds this year, up from $32.4 million in 2007. The institute, which employs about 1,000 scientific and support staff, needs at least $60 million a year “to do (its) job properly”, he added. “I think over the next two to three years, we should be arriving at that level,” he said.

Zeigler said the decline in funding almost crippled IRRI, which was forced to cut back on training and key areas of research on pest management, soil health, agricultural engineering and biodiversity.

“We had a lot of reductions,” he lamented. “It was very difficult for us. It wasn’t fatal, but we had to seriously contract.”

Zeigler blamed the decline in agricultural investment on “a sense of complacency” following the Green Revolution’s success.

“People basically thought that the war on food security was won,” he said. “So the world entered into a sense of complacency that meant, well we don’t need to invest in agriculture anymore because we already solved the problem.”

The false sense of security led to years of neglect of agriculture, with countries also reducing funding for domestic agricultural research, infrastructure and extensions, such as irrigation programmes.

The impact of the funding cut was not felt until this year when world prices of rice skyrocketed to $1,000 per tonne.

Zeigler said it was “extremely difficult” for IRRI to get financing from 2000 to 2006, when funding dropped to as low as $27.1 million or equivalent to the level of money it had in the early 1970s.

“We were seen as almost irrelevant,” he lamented. “In some ways, people thought food security was no longer an issue and if food security is no longer an issue, why should you worry about an institute that works on rice?”

IRRI also had to fend off criticisms that farming methods it promoted allegedly harmed the environment, while some critics questioned its role in agricultural development.

But the institute kept some loyal supporters and got enough funding to “keep going,” Zeigler said.

In a bid to boost funding, IRRI has launched a new strategic plan to show donors that the institute has a “major role to play” in global efforts to eradicate poverty, malnourishment, environmental degradation and even gender inequality.

“That marks the turnaround, we were already beginning to see renewed donor interest in IRRI,” Zeigler said. “The rice crisis has accelerated donor interest.”

In the wake of the rice crisis, Zeigler said governments have learned not to neglect agriculture and that investment in the sector is like “air traffic control, it’s not very glamorous but you have to have it or planes will start flying into one another.”

He lamented the social impact of high rice prices in Asian countries like the Philippines, where some families have been forced to cut back on other expenses such as education to buy the staple.

“People are pulling out their kids from school,” he said. “That means that they’re condemned for their whole lives to menial labour and poverty. So if these prices stay high for very long, it’s going to have a long-term impact on society, on the education of children.”

“The impact of these rice prices is not just an inconvenience for people,” he added. “They have serious long-term impact on overall economic growth and personal growth and development of people and it’s something that we have to take very seriously.”

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