It’s going to take a lot of agricultural research to meet the world’s future food needs. So far, say Nienke Beintema and Gert-Jan Stads, we’re falling short.
It’s no secret that agricultural research is a good investment that can double and even triple yields of crops and livestock. It’s also a necessary investment: global food supplies will need to rise by an estimated 70 percent to feed the world in 2050. So you might expect countries where food insecurity is high to be investing heavily in agricultural research and development (R&D). For the most part, you’d be wrong.
So say Nienke Beintema and Gert-Jan Stads of the Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators (ASTI) initiative.
ASTI is the world’s scorekeeper for agricultural R&D spending, staffing, and institutional developments. Without ASTI, no one would really know how much developing countries are spending on agricultural R&D. And as Beintema says, “You can’t manage it if you haven’t measured it.”
With a team of five people based mostly in Rome, ASTI tracks down the data on R&D spending in about 60 countries around the world, with a special focus on Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
The work is painstaking. It involves surveying hundreds of agricultural research institutes, government agencies, universities, and private companies and persuading them to take the time to share their data on who is spending what and how many researchers are involved in pursuing agricultural innovation. The data are transmitted to Rome, where the ASTI team compiles and analyzes them with a network of national and international partners, and then publishes their findings. The goal is to spread the word that spending on agricultural research matters.
ASTI grew out of small, ad hoc data collection activities that began during the mid-1980s at the International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR) in The Hague. Beintema studied economics at Groningen University in the Netherlands, where she worked on comparing labor productivity across countries. “That’s how I found out that I like crunching numbers,” she says. After graduating she took a job at ISNAR and started working on what is now the ASTI program.
ASTI was officially established in 2001 as a joint program between IFPRI and ISNAR. Beintema became its leader and soon after hired Gert-Jan Stads, who was returning to development economics after a stint doing online media work for a Google subsidiary.
Early on, ASTI drew financial support from CGIAR and IFPRI. But its work remained small in scale until 2008, when a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation brought in a consistent flow of funding and the program relocated to a new home in Rome.
“We moved the project from ad hoc data collection to a much broader scale,” says Beintema. The Gates Foundation grant allowed ASTI to start building a system to regularly monitor and analyze agricultural R&D data. For the moment, work remains focused on Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, but Beintema and Stads hope to secure funding to make ASTI a truly global program.
What do the latest findings show? A 2011 ASTI report on agricultural R&D spending and human resource capacity in Sub-Saharan Africa reveals that although some countries have substantially increased their investments, most countries have slowed the pace of growth in R&D spending or even made cuts. In October 2012 ASTI will issue a new global report that may show a widening gap between countries that spend big on agricultural innovation and those that don’t.
The numbers that Beintema and Stads are seeing are worrisome. “Many developing countries are seeing rapid population growth. More mouths need to be fed, and every hectare needs to be more productive,” says Stads. “The evidence says that countries should be investing heavily in agricultural research.”
One percent of agricultural GDP is a commonly accepted target for public spending on agricultural R&D. So far, only a handful of Sub-Saharan African countries have met this target.
Why aren’t countries spending more? Part of the reason is the amount of time it takes for meaningful agricultural research. Stads gives an example: “If you invest in rice research, you may get results in about 15 years. This time frame is out of step with election cycles and short-term political considerations.”
Another reason is that for many Sub-Saharan African countries, a large proportion of research funding comes from outside donors. “Donor money is mostly ad hoc and short term,” says Stads. A donor may support a three-year research program, he explains. Money arrives, staff is hired, and equipment is purchased. When the project ends, though, researchers leave and equipment falls into disrepair. The work comes to a halt.
Spending levels for research are not the only concern. ASTI’s 2011 report notes that agricultural scientists, especially in West and Central Africa, are aging, and there aren’t enough young scientists being hired to replace them. In Senegal, for example, about 60 percent of researchers at major government and higher education agencies are older than 50. And new young scientists often lack postgraduate degrees—a clear signal, says Beintema, that “there’s not enough investment in education and training.”
Like any scorekeepers, however, Beintema and Stads are not in a position to win the game. They can only report to the players—governments, donors, and R&D managers—who make decisions and allocate funds. “We provide the data,” says Stads. “It’s up to the policymakers to use the data to their advantage.”