Tuesday, September 19, 2006

"A seedbed of revolution"

Read "Economics focus: A seedbed of revolution" in the current edition of The Economist.

Last week the Rockefeller Foundation and the Gates Foundation said they would devote $150m over five years to research to improve agricultural productivity in Africa.
Some of this money ($63m) will be spent training more crop scientists and breeding new seed varieties suited to sub-Saharan Africa's parched climate, denuded soils and stubborn pests. But the two foundations, appreciating that technology is not the only obstacle, will spend almost as much ($61m) on the distribution of seeds as on their discovery. They will, for example, help village retailers and seed wholesalers set up in business, and push for financial reforms that would enable farmers and their suppliers to get credit.

The money is welcome, because crop science of the sort Mr Borlaug (who won the Nobel Prize for his leadership in the research that fueled the Green Revolution in Asia) made famous has fallen out of fashion in recent decades. The International Rice Research Institute, for example, lost a quarter of its core funding between 2001 and 2003. These days biotechnology is mainly a profit-driven enterprise, creating seeds for big farms, often in rich countries. This skews its research, says Michael Lipton, of the University of Sussex. Herbicide-resistant crops, for example, allow weeds to be killed chemically, rather than plucked manually. This might reduce the demand for farm labour, which is scarce in rich countries, but in need of employment in poor ones.
Thus we see philanthropists stepping in to support biotechnology for agriculture in Africa, recognizing the failure of private industry to address Africa's technological needs under the market-based innovation system, and recognizing the failure of governments to adequately support the International Agricultural Research Centers to make up the shortfall.

Editorial Note: This was originally posted to this blog by mistake, but I have left it as it might be of interest to our readers even though it does not specifically deal with UNESCO. After all, Africa is UNESCO's priority region, and the need to build scientific capacity in Africa is recognized by UNESCO. JAD

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