Shifting Global Health Concerns Threaten to Upstage World Hunger Organization

An organization that helped lead the fight against world hunger three decades ago is finding itself edged out of the public spotlight as AIDS and other global health problems increasingly take center stage, the New York Times reports

The little-known Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) oversees a network of sixteen research centers, including the International Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat in Mexico, where the high-yielding wheat developed by Dr. Norman E. Borlaug set the stage for the "green revolution" in the 1960s.

But traditional plant breeding methods are fast being replaced by biotech techniques, and seeds, genes, and technology that used to be exchanged freely are now often patented by companies and universities, threatening the ability of the centers to distribute seeds free to poor farmers.

"They are getting left behind," said Dr. Robert Herdt, a vice president at the Rockefeller Foundation, which has long supported the group.

Today, the causes of food shortages are considered more or less solved by many experts and health problems such as AIDS now command the attention of major funders. As a result, the organization's budget has remained static at about $340 million for the past three years.

"The poor in developing countries are not a great constituency," said Ian Johnson, a World Bank executive and chairman of the group, which is run out of the World Bank in Washington. But, he added, some 800 million people around the globe are still chronically malnourished and the world population is expected to increase by two billion in the next twenty years.

Aware that they are running out of time, CGIAR officials are starting to take cues from the private sector and are considering a more centralized management to better navigate the increasingly competitive landscape. It also has initiated a public relations campaign and is starting to refer to itself by a catchier name, Future Harvest.

"[We need] an image of CGIAR that relates to the future and not to the past," said World Bank president James Wolfensohn. "We don't have a lot of time to give this back the prominence it needs."

Andrew Pollack. "Changing Times Challenge World Hunger Organization" New York Times 05/15/2001.