Concern as Germany cuts funds to agricultural research centres

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Munich and Washington

Helping hand: Reeves (right) of CIMMYT, warns of serious risks to long-term research. Credit: CIMMYT

Germany has sent shock waves through the international agricultural research community by making heavy cuts in its financial support for six high-profile agricultural research centres in developing countries.

The cuts were made last month following a decision to halve the DM35 million (US$18 million) research portfolio of Germany's Ministry for Economic Cooperation (BMZ) over the next four years. They are part of a DM30 billion austerity programme introduced by the government to stabilize the country's economy.

Basic research carried out through the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a network of 16 international research centres, will be particu-larly hard hit. In 1999, the BMZ contributed around $17 million, of which $6 million was for institutional core funding, towards the CGIAR's overall budget of $345 million. Next year, the BMZ's contribution to the CGIAR's core funding will be reduced by $2.5 million.

Six of the CGIAR's 16 institutes will carry the cuts. These are the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico City, the International Potato Institute in Peru, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Syria, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in India, the West Africa Rice Development Association (WARDA) in the Ivory Coast, the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington DC and the International Service for National Agricultural Research in the Netherlands.

CIMMYT, one of the world's leading grain-research organizations, will lose BMZ's contribution of $400,000 to its annual core budget of about $15 million. “This is a significant blow,” says Timothy Reeves, who directs the centre, which has about 120 scientific personnel in Mexico City and another 300 in 16 countries around the world. He says the cuts have meant that 14 scientific personnel are being made redundant at CIMMYT's headquarters at the end of the year.

Research at CIMMYT, founded in 1966, is widely credited with having helped to avert famines in Asia in the 1980s. Its scientists, in particular Norman Borlaug, the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, were largely responsible for the scientific breakthroughs behind the ‘Green Revolution’. Today 40 per cent of CIMMYT's efforts are concentrated on Africa, providing underdeveloped regions with drought-tolerant maize.

Although CIMMYT will still be able to apply for project-based BMZ funds, Reeves is concerned that long-term scientific projects — such as research on wheat diseases — could be seriously at risk. He is also worried that Germany's decision could affect other nations. “Everybody is concerned,” he says. “If Germany does this, what will other countries do?”

Some of the ambitious scientific projects pursued by the five other CGIAR institutes affected could also be damaged by the cuts. Marlene Diekmann, an expert in agricultural research at the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit, a government-owned German agency for technical cooperation with developing countries, describes the cuts as “a disaster” for the whole system of international agricultural research.

Diekmann is particularly concerned that the cuts may damage some of the CGIAR's most valuable resources, such as ICARDA's gene bank, which holds more than 117,000 germplasm samples. ICARDA supplies more than 30,000 samples from this collection each year to the global research community.

“The maintenance of a gene bank is costly and cannot be financed by project-based funds alone,” she says. She points out that successful long-term research projects strongly depend on reliable institutional funding. “Reductions in core funding are likely to result in a somewhat hasty chase for short-term success, whereas innovative and sustainable long-term research will probably be neglected,” she says.

The importance of the research carried out by the CGIAR is widely recognized. After last year's system review of the organization, a panel of international experts headed by Maurice Strong, the founding executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, concluded that investment in the CGIAR had been “the most effective use of official development assistance”.

Alexander von der Osten, executive secretary of the CGIAR, says that support from countries other than Germany has remained strong. “Our overall budget has been gradually going up,” he says.

He adds that the CGIAR has appealed against the cuts to both the finance minister and the overseas development minister in Germany. “But we didn't obtain anything other than good words,” he says. “We need to mobilize public opinion so that people understand that this research is in the interests of northern countries,” he adds.

Ironically, the cuts coincide with a recommendation by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), a foundation closely linked with Germany's ruling Social Democrat Party, to increase funding for the CGIAR. In a report on possible benefits of genetic engineering for agriculture in developing countries, published last week, the FES concludes that “cuts in public funding of agricultural research relevant to developing countries mainly hit the poor”.

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Schiermeier, Q., Dalton, R. & Macilwain, C. Concern as Germany cuts funds to agricultural research centres. Nature 402, 845–846 (1999) doi:10.1038/47151

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