June 1997, Volume 18 No. 2


The past year has seen dramatic changes in patterns of funding for international agricultural and environmental research which has substantial implications for biological control. For decades, two large international systems, the United Nations system and the international agricultural research centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) have played a dominant role in tropical and subtropical agricultural research. The CGIAR centres in particular, which include the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and thirteen others, have applied their annual budgets of tens of millions of dollars to research on declared mandate food crops for ecological regions in Africa, Asia and tropical America. Their principal output has been the high-yielding food crop varieties of the `green revolution', but considerable work has also been done on pest management and biological control.

Much of the biological control effort of the CGIAR institutes has been directed at pest problems which have accompanied the green revolution approach and its associated dependence on agricultural inputs and the movement of crop varieties around the World. These have included classical biological control projects against pests accidentally introduced with new crop varieties, e.g. cassava mealybug in Africa, or the natural biological control of pests, such as the brown planthopper on rice, which have been induced by pesticide use associated with high-yielding varieties. Besides putting out the fires at the edges of the green revolution, the contribution of these projects to global, and particularly tropical biological control has been substantial, and is now at risk due to a decline in donor funding.

In January, ICRISAT, which is based in India, announced cuts in its international and national staff of over 25%, while IRRI announced a reduction of about 50% in its core, national staff in Philippines. Other CGIAR centres are under similar pressure.

The situation is not much better in the UN system, the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) are having particular financial problems at present. Both of these organizations have played important roles in biological control, WHO in stimulating research on biopesticides for control of disease vectors, and UNEP in its support, with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), for integrated pest management and its advocacy for the management of alien invasive species as a major threat to biodiversity.

Biological control today remains largely a public sector activity, despite the important and long-awaited growth of a biocontrol industry. Governments fund classical biological control programmes, as well as research into the conservation of indigenous natural enemies and IPM - indeed they fund a substantial amount of research into biocontrol products for commercial use. Countries which do not have large national budgets for such research have come to depend on international research and funding systems like the CGIAR institutes and the UN agencies. As their budgets decline, and development assistance is concentrated in institutions without their technical capabilities, it will be increasingly hard to support international initiatives in biological control. It is ironic that this change comes at a time when governments around the World are advocating biological control as a component of sustainable development.

What is the solution to this problem? Is it to re-instate and increase investment in these international systems to improve support to international biological control, or are other strategies now more promising? It might be argued that this decline in funding to international institutions is more an evolution than a crisis. As national programmes in developing countries steadily improve their capacity to undertake sophisticated agricultural research, the need for support from international centres and agencies may be less. Consortia of national programmes may provide the same level of international scientific excellence and capability. But this assumes that national programmes can work together to take up this international role, and that appropriate funding for this will be forthcoming through bilateral channels from donors for them to participate. Neither of these are certainties, but along with greater support for international institutions, they deserve attention now.