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Three Lessons for Ag Dev Sector from Rice Biotechnology Project

October 30, 2013

The World Food Prize convened its annual Borlaug Dialogue in Des Moines, Iowa this month – named for the renowned agricultural scientist Dr. Norman Borlaug – with Tony Blair, Howard Buffett, Icelandic President Grimsson and others addressing scientists, business and policy leaders from 65 countries.  

As these leaders gathered to discuss global agriculture, I want to give a “shout out” for a recent review of the Rockefeller Foundation’s landmark International Program on Rice Biotechnology (IPRB), a 17-year investment to improve rice breeding in Asia -- since rice is one of the most important food crops in the developing world. The review highlights several important lessons not only for rice research, but for many of us working in agricultural development.

Long-term commitment

The IPRB effort began in 1984 and ended in 2000, with the Rockefeller Foundation making an unprecedented and long-term commitment, with investments totaling over $100 million.  Rockefeller’s boldness in making early and long-term investments in this field really paid off.  Especially in agriculture, long-term commitments and persistence are essential, since it can take 15 years or more from the start of agricultural research to getting improved seed varieties into farmers’ hands.  In fact, benefits to farmer from the work started under IPRB are only now emerging – including flood tolerant rice, a new type of rice developed in India that can survive up to 14 days underwater.

Support to developing country scientists

Another positive outcome from the program was the long-term and invaluable support to developing country researchers. IPRB provided support to over 100 institutions in 16 developing countries – mostly in Asia, but also in Latin America and Africa -- and engaged over 700 scientists in 30+ countries.  There’s no doubt that IPRB’s fellowships and research grants had a profound and long lasting influence on the careers of many developing country researchers, and created an strong international network of rice scientists.

Use of evaluation

By looking back at Rockefeller’s long term investments in rice biotechnology, we can understand better the investments that we are making today in Agriculture. Evaluation of the biotechnology program teaches us to fix our goals at a high level and stay the course. It also reminds us that periodic evaluations of our investments will allow us to make appropriate corrections. 

These findings – on long-term commitment, support to developing country researchers, and the use of evaluation — are powerful lessons for participants at the World Food Prize and for all of us working on agricultural development.  

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