March 13, 2008 / 5:12 AM / 11 years ago

Farm research network braces for less funds from U.S.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A leading agricultural research network is bracing itself for a sharp cut in funding from its top donor, the United States, even as bioenergy, population growth, and climate change pose pivotal challenges for global food production.

Farmer Johnny Roth pauses while speaking with visitors to his family farm in Redhouse, Maryland, August 28, 2006. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The U.S. Agency for International Development has warned the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, which includes 15 research centers around the world, that it expects to cut the network’s core funding by 75 percent this year, the network’s director said on Wednesday.

“The United States has been playing such an important role that a retreat, a withdrawal in these areas will be devastating,” CGIAR director Ren Wang said.

U.S. support, including core and project funding, was around $56 million in 2007, about 12 percent of overall funding, CGIAR reported. In 2006, it was $60.7 million.

Harry Edwards, a spokesman for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said the exact level of funding for the research centers for fiscal 2008 had not yet been decided.

Wang said a reduction of such scale would endanger cutting-edge research to combat major crop scourges like wheat rust, to develop vitamin-enhanced rice or potatoes, or to safeguard seeds and plant samples in gene banks.

The centers have also partnered with U.S. academia, teaming with the University of California at Davis, for example, to produce rice tolerant to prolonged flooding — a trait that takes on new importance as climates change.

“This is the kind of success that will not be repeated if cuts continue,” Wang said.

The network’s research, at centers like the International Potato Center in Peru and the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, are funded by governments, private foundations and other donors like the World Bank.

The expected reduction in U.S. support comes as major donors like the World Bank and the Gates Foundation turn anew to agriculture, suffering from decades of underinvestment, as a primary vehicle for combating poverty.

It also coincides with rising food prices and a historic surge for commodity markets, which has been fueled by income growth in developing nations, increasing biofuels production, and adverse weather many see linked to climate change.

The trend, twinned with dwindling world cereals stocks, has stirred social unrest in some already fragile countries.

“Just as everyone moves forward with increased investment in sustainable agricultural growth, this happens here. That I think is just a very bad signal,” said Joachim von Braun, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, one of the CGIAR centers.

Wang expects that CGIAR’s project funding could be cut, too, by up to 75 percent, but he remains hopeful that USAID officials may dig up enough money within their fiscal 2008 budget to at least soften the blow.

CGIAR officials said the reduction was the result of increased earmarks in a spending bill passed last year that meant less money for agriculture research.

“It is not that the administration doesn’t like agriculture research, but it seems to me an uncoordinated, erratic process ... a very serious policy failure,” Von Braun said.

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