Published online 7 November 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.1214


Food research 'lost in translation'

Funders call for public and private partners to collaborate in getting new crops to farmers.

farmerAfrican farmers would benefit from more collaboration between public and private sectors.Punchstock

A dearth of investment in agricultural and plant science, and virtually no links between public and private sectors, are key drivers of the shortage of affordable food in Africa, a meeting of the African science academies in London, UK, heard this week.

Speaking at the conference on 4 November, Laurence Cockcroft, senior adviser to the Gatsby Charitable Foundation's Africa programmes, said he was "shocked" at how little dialogue existed between public agricultural research centres in Africa and the private sector.

The Gatsby foundation, which is based in the United Kingdom, funds science and education with a particular interest in plant research. Cockcroft told Nature News that limited public funds and a small number of scientists available for crop science in Africa make it ever more important that the public and private sectors collaborate.

"There is no relationship between the private companies, the public-funded research stations and small-holder farmers," he says.

Cockcroft's comments echo remarks made by Robert Watson, chief scientific adviser for the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), last week. Watson told a meeting of Defra's science advisory council in London on 28 October that applied agricultural research in both the United Kingdom and the developing world "is falling through the gaps".

"Many universities and government labs have walked away from this kind of research, and where it is being done it is not reaching the farmers on the ground," says Watson.

Bridging the gap

Cockcroft stresses that there is good agricultural research going on in developing countries, such as that conducted by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, a coalition of 15 centres that has its headquarters in Kenya.

But research developments are not reaching farmers because there are very few initiatives to demonstrate the benefits of new crop breeds or cultivation techniques to them, says Namanga Ngongi, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an organization funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve African agriculture.

"Farmers need to see for themselves that the new technologies will make a big difference," Ngongi told Nature News. "Many African farmers are small-holders and are very risk adverse. They can't run the risk that they adopt a new technology and it damages the food security of their families."

AGRA launched a $150-million programme last year to bridge the gap between the public and private sectors. It is funding public research institutions to develop new crop varieties; working with private seed companies to multiply the newly developed seeds for commercial use; and persuading agricultural dealers to stock the crops.

Watson suggests that governments and the private sector could also share the costs of translational research, and the subsequent demonstrations to farmers. 

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