Going With the Grain

3 November 2003 (All day)

NAIROBI, KENYA--The promise of genomics is pushing two crown jewels of crop research into an embrace. Last week the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) disclosed plans for a World Cereal Center that would consolidate efforts at the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the Philippines' International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

"I am very excited about the possibility of collaborating more closely with IRRI," says CIMMYT's director general, geneticist Masa Iwanaga, who has run the center since July 2002. "Working together will allow us to reach a critical mass in the social sciences, in biotechnology, and in information management." The crops studied by CIMMYT and IRRI scientists provide 60% of the calories consumed by the world's 6 billion people, he adds, and "recent discoveries have revealed that the genomes of the three major cereals are remarkably similar." The two centers are already collaborating on improving yields of rice and wheat in the Indo-Ganges plain.

Although CGIAR's overall budget is holding steady at about $400 million, its 16 centers have seen their discretionary funding shrink, as donors prefer to target specific initiatives. This has put pressure on individual centers to operate more efficiently as well as to find new research partners. Last week, for example, Canada said it would give $21 million for a new biosciences facility at the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya. At the same time, CGIAR announced that the International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR) in The Hague, Netherlands, would be shuttered and its efforts folded into the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington, D.C.

A joint statement issued at the close of CGIAR's annual meeting here says that everything "from a formal alliance to a full merger" is on the table. The announcement is a potentially important step in "combining the strategic research for wheat, rice, and maize," says M. S. Swaminathan, a prominent Indian agriculture scientist and chief of the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai. But he warns that a simple merger of administrative structures would fall far short of what farmers in the developing world need to continue the Green Revolution. Details of the alliance will be worked out in talks next year between the centers' two boards.

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