By Robert Lalasz

Agriculture plays a pivotal role in questions of global hunger, health, environment, and economic growth. Yet finding sustainable and more productive forms of agriculture is largely absent from the international agenda. The World Bank's Robert Watson detailed for a Wilson Center audience a new effort (a) to determine whether the world needs an international assessment of agricultural science and technology and (b), if so, to conduct the assessment.

Why an Assessment?

Watson first outlined the global conditions that have prompted interest in such an assessment. Agriculture, he said, is intimately tied to a whole host of crucial world issues—-including water quality and quantity, developing-country economic growth, nutrition and health, and biodiversity. "Agriculture is absolutely essential to every global and local issue you can think about," he said.

Yet Watson lamented that agriculture has fallen off the international agenda in a time of interlocking global crises. He noted eight hundred million people are chronically undernourished, primarily because poverty hinders their access to adequate food supplies. Furthermore, Watson said, world food demand will double in the next 20 to 40 years, while climate change, water scarcity, and endemic diseases such as HIV/AIDS will reduce agricultural productivity, particularly in developing countries.

Meanwhile, agricultural research and development funding has both declined and shifted from the public to the private sectors. Watson said a comprehensive assessment could provide all stakeholders with the peer-reviewed information they need to make informed agricultural choices—-to set research priorities and funding levels, craft and implement policies, and determine the best use of appropriate technology to enhance production in a sustainable way.

"Who bears the risks of new technologies, and is public-sector funding adequate?" he asked rhetorically. "Can productivity be increased and can crop traits be improved in the face of climate change? Can post-harvest losses be decreased, and what is the potential of organic farming?" Watson's preliminary timetable shows the assessment completing its work by fall of 2005.

Do We Really Need One?

But Watson stressed that the need for such an assessment, especially with competing surveys already ongoing, is by no means clear. He detailed the outcome of an early November meeting in Dublin among World Bank and other interested parties that began the consultative process to determine if such an assessment is necessary. Any assessment, Watson said, should be demand-driven and value-added, with a governance structure and dissemination system that is open, transparent, and legitimate to all stakeholders—-especially poor farmers, pastoralists, and fishers.

"The assessment should be policy relevant, not policy prescriptive," Watson urged. "It should strive to put research and technology back on the map, establishing a knowledge base for setting the public and private sector research agenda."

He suggested that the International Panel on Climate Change, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, and the International Commission on Large Dams were possible models for the assessment's structure and governance. Watson said that any assessment should complement and not replace other ongoing exercises, such as the Millennium Development Goals effort to reduce hunger worldwide by 2015. He also argued that it should evaluate related policy and institutional issues such as subsidies and tariffs.

Discussion focused on the proper definition and parameters for the assessment exercise. A senior U.S. State Department official said that the United States saw the scope of the assessment as (a) too broad and expensive; (b) lacking in focus, concrete goals, and evaluative mechanisms, and (c) too duplicative of other work (such as that done by CGIAR). "It's difficult to see how it could help use existing and emergent technologies to meet concrete goals," said the official. "The ‘yes or no' question needs to be seriously considered."

Others, however, urged Watson to acknowledge that the effort would need to evaluate policy options as well as the political atmosphere for those options. "Don't pretend it's just a scientific assessment," said one audience member. "Shouldn't you have a clear goal with target years and percentages?"

In response, Watson said that, while the World Bank "is becoming demand-driven," it takes technology five, 10, or 20 years to get to the marketplace. "We need to put science and technology back on the map," Watson said.