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The first meeting

I’ve recently returned from Nairobi, having attended the first meeting of the board of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). This title is quite a mouthful so I need to provide some background and history of the CGIAR.

The CGIAR was set up in the early 1970s at a time when there was major political concern about global food security. Two key factors spurred this concern.

Grain robbery and oil prices

In 1972, there was a large increase in grain prices, partly due to the fact that the Soviet Union had bought a large amount of available US grain stocks. This was known at the time as the “Great Russian grain robbery.”

In 1973, the Arab-Israeli war led to a major spike in oil prices. The combination of high food and energy prices meant that food access moved near the top of the international political agenda.

Green revolution

On the positive side, the early 1970s saw big advances in food production in Asia, resulting from the green revolution. This meant that countries like India – which a decade earlier faced famine – were moving towards self sufficiency.

Breakthroughs and success

These were the factors that lay behind the decision to establish the CGIAR. It consists of a number of international agricultural research institutes working on food crops and livestock systems. These institutes link with governments to help them increase food production.

The CGIAR has now developed into a significant institution. It has 15 international agricultural research institutes around the world, employs over 2,000 scientists and 8,000 staff and has a combined budget of some $500 million. It has achieved a significant number of scientific breakthroughs and has made a major contribution to increasing global food security.

Making improvements

Despite that success, there has been a growing feeling that the system could work better. This led to a decision in 2008 to implement a major reform of the system. A Consortium Board was established to oversee the reform process. It was this board which held its first meeting last week in Nairobi.

The board is chaired by Carlos Perez del Castillo, a very experienced economist from Uruguay. There is a wide geographical spread among the remaining members – three from Africa, two from North America and Europe, one from Asia. The range of expertise around the table is impressive, and there’s good chemistry within the group.

The challenge

The challenges facing the board are considerable. We must ensure that the significant intellectual and financial resources of the CGIAR will be used to best effect in fighting hunger and poverty. I am looking forward to the challenge.