Are donors pulling back on agriculture research funding?

A researcher at Southern Horticultural Research Institute in Vietnam, where the Asian Development Bank provides technological and research training support. Are international donors doing enough to support long-term food security? Photo by: ADB / CC BY-NC-ND

Three-quarters of the world’s poorest people depend almost entirely on agriculture for subsistence and income. One in nine people in the world today are undernourished, according to the United Nations, and World Bank data shows humanity needs to produce at least 50 percent more food by 2050 to feed an estimated 9 billion people.

As the world grapples with rapid population growth, climate change and other serious threats to food security, the international development community is pushing for radical change across the global food and agriculture system to facilitate greater productivity.

Sustainable Development Goal 2, “zero hunger,” emphasizes the need for increased investment to enhance agricultural productive capacity in developing countries. Meanwhile, the vast majority of international donors acknowledge that public investment in research and development is critical to achieving the technological advances that will help the world grow more nutritious and affordable foods. The International Fund for Agricultural Development, for instance, says that productivity growth in agriculture can be up to four times more effective in reducing poverty than growth resulting from other sectors.

In 2008, total global investment in agricultural research and development was valued at almost $32 billion. But according to agriculture economists and experts, there is growing anecdotal evidence that donor investments in agriculture research are leveling off, raising questions over whether or not international donors are doing enough to support long-term food security as they grapple with other competing priorities.

“Definitely, agriculture research and development investment as an overall amount and as a proportion of agriculture investment in general is at least stagnating and probably declining,” said Rinn Self, a policy and program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “We’ve done some research ourselves looking through the DAC and what we’ve noticed is that disbursements are flat for sure, but it also looks to us like commitments are down, too. It’s something that we’re very concerned about.”

After a decade of slow growth in the 1990s, global public investment in agriculture research and development increased by over 20 percent from 2000 to 2008. The single most important reason was the drastic surge in global food prices, which peaked in mid-2008. International prices for staple foods, such as wheat and maize, more than doubled in a few years while those for rice doubled in the first few months of 2008 alone. Food riots erupted from Egypt to Haiti.

In response to the crisis, the G8 countries pledged $20 billion to agricultural development at their 2009 Summit in L’Aquila, Italy. The pledges increased to $22 billion at the Pittsburgh G20 summit when other nations stepped up to provide aid.

The high-profile political commitments revived the interest of traditional bilateral and multilateral donors in agricultural research. The European Union pledged $3.8 billion to agricultural development. In 2010, President Obama’s L’Aquila pledge of $3.5 billion over three years became Feed the Future — the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative.

That same year, the World Bank developed and became trustee of the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program at the request of the leaders of the G20. The program’s primary objective is to improve food security in the world’s poorest countries through more effective investment in agriculture. As of September 2013, the initiative has received pledges amounting to $1.3 billion from some of the world’s largest bilateral donors and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, a global partnership between agriculture researchers better known as CGIAR, doubled its funding between 2008 and 2013 to $1 billion. Similarly, the nine-member alliance of the Association of International Research and Development Centers for Agriculture also roughly doubled their funding during this time.

But it has been a different story over the past two years as the momentum behind food security subsided, according to Prabhu Pingali, founding director of the Tata-Cornell agriculture and nutrition initiative and an agriculture economics professor at Cornell University.

Starting in 2015, Feed the Future’s funding for agriculture research and development plateaued at roughly $145 million, after adjusting for inflation. Internal data shows that figure is projected to decline through 2017. A USAID spokesperson told Devex that “USAID will continue to provide robust funding for research efforts in support of Feed the Future’s Research Strategy, which is central to the success of this initiative.”

Back in October 2013, as World Bank President Jim Yong Kim announced a $400 million cut in annual administrative costs over the next three years, funding for CGIAR decreased from $50 million to $30 million. That figure will be maintained at least until 2018, but some industry leaders are already worried about what funding levels will look like thereafter.

“If the World Bank cuts that money, that sends a really bad signal to the other donor countries,” Pingali said. “It creates a situation where their confidence in the system will start to decline.”

There’s already clear evidence that the pressure is on for the more traditional donors of agriculture research, according to Nick Austin, CEO of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.

“The problem is that there’s a several year lag between the decisions that donors make and the reporting of the consequences of that and by then we’ve locked in impact for some years ahead,” Austin said.

Unsurprisingly, funding unpredictability is negatively influencing CGIAR planning and operations. Pingali, who was on the CGIAR Fund council when it hit the $1 billion mark, says that today there are big layoffs across the CGIAR system.

“These people who came in 2008-2010 are suddenly finding themselves without jobs,” he said. “The projects that started at that time are coming to an end and there’s no renewal of those projects.”

That gloomy outlook can be partially traced to the fact that food prices have declined and donors are focusing on more immediate priorities. For instance, the European Union, which proactively confronted the world food price crisis of 2007 and 2008 with a 1 billion euro investment, is now shifting increasing amounts of ODA to fragile states and working with refugees.

“Agricultural research is always long term and when short-term considerations become a priority, long-term falls out,” says Bruce Tolentino, the deputy director general for communications and partnerships at the International Rice Research Institute, one of the CGIAR’s main research centers. “It’s always a continuing battle.”

As the body of evidence related to declining aid to agriculture research grows, it is difficult to pinpoint which countries or research organizations could potentially be hardest hit.

One region to watch is sub-Saharan Africa, which will be home to more than one-quarter of the world’s population by 2050, or roughly 2.4 billion people, and remains highly dependent on donor aid to help tackle high rates of food insecurity. The FAO’s latest estimates suggest that approximately one in four people living in sub-Saharan Africa is undernourished.

According to a 2014 report published by the International Food Policy Research Institute, Africa invested 0.51 percent of agricultural output in research in 2011, below the African Union’s target of 1 percent or greater. Even then, the bulk of government funding in most sub-Saharan African countries is used for salaries. The cost of launching and maintaining research and development infrastructure equipment draws heavily from donor aid and practitioners are fearful over what happens when that aid dries up. The report points to “extensive” anecdotal evidence that some agriculture-focused agencies in Africa simply cannot survive without foreign donor funding.

“One of the challenges in agriculture research is that it needs a long-term sustained investment and big amounts of money can be more damaging if they’re not sustained than a small constant contribution,” said ACIAR’s Austin. “Donors need to do better at providing that continuity and consistency.”

But, it is not just about the money. Small and medium-sized research programs also depend quite heavily on input, partnerships and capacity building from international research organizations such as the CGIAR and ACIAR.

“You’re running into this capacity gap and that gap is going to continue to grow, which is something I would worry about in the new funding scenario,” Pingali said.

As official development assistance stagnates, agriculture researchers are finding that they must welcome other funders to the table and pursue alternative resource mobilization strategies. For example, several middle-income countries have been stepping up their investments in agriculture research, which could be positive for the prospect of sustainability.

Emerging donors are also expanding their agriculture investment activity, potentially helping fill the void left behind by declines in traditional donor spending. Public spending in India, China and Brazil account for one quarter of global investments and half of combined spending in developing countries.

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About the author

  • Fatima%25281%2529

    Fatima Arkin

    Fatima Arkin is a Devex contributor specializing in climate change, human rights, and sustainable development. She has reported across Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America for Foreign Policy,, Maclean's, and many others. She holds a B.A. in international development and history from McGill University and a graduate diploma in journalism from Concordia University, both located in Montreal, Canada.