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Bill Gates' Rescue Package:
Flogging a Dead Horse

by Devinder Sharma
New Delhi, India

Devinder Sharma.
Devinder Sharma. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Bill Gates donation of U.S. $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. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), responsible for ushering in the green revolution technology, is now seriously grappling for survival.

Faced with huge staff layoffs, drastic cuts 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 organizations (NGOs) 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.

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.

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. Scientists, including Dr. M. S. Swaminathan, father of India’s green revolution, and Dr. Robert Cantrell, director general of the IRRI, have already gone on record saying that golden rice cannot address the problem of Vitamin A deficiency.

In any case, fortified crops cannot eradicate nutrient deficiency. Whether the newly evolved genetically-modified (GM) crops contains supplements of Vitamin 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 an adequate amount of fats to absorb these nutrients, which is conspicuously absent in the malnourished populations. The hungry, therefore, (who) 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, the 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 functional foods. 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 much more 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 hunger”.

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.

About the author: Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst. Among his works are GATT to WTO: Seeds of Despair and In the Famine Trap.

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Published in In Motion Magazine October 19, 2003