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G-20 ag scientists agree to share research information

The agricultural chief scientists from most of the G-20 countries met for the first time ever in Mexico last week and reached agreement to share information, with the goal of increasing the pace of agricultural research and production, Agriculture Undersecretary for Research, Education and Economics Catherine Woteki told The Hagstrom Report in an interview this week.

Woteki, who also holds the title of chief scientist at USDA, said that since the global food price spikes in 2008 there has been “a revitalization” of agricultural development research but that overall there has been a stagnation in research budgets in the developed countries while China has increased its agricultural research budget.

Catherine Woteki

Catherine Woteki
“We realized that there are finite resources and an opportunity to better align our resources and evaluate where we are putting our money to make our investment as effective as can be,” Woteki said.

During the meeting, the scientists recognized that in order to feed a world population projected to reach 9 billion people by 2050, all nations will need to make a long-term commitment to agricultural research, but they also noted there is also a risk of duplication.

“Recent international research collaborations have been critical to meet challenges such as combating wheat rust and increasing wheat productivity, fighting aflatoxin contamination in food, and sequencing genomes of important crops,” Woteki said.

“However, the group recognized that as such partnerships continue to increase, there is a risk that some partnerships may have duplicative goals or that countries and collaborative partnerships may be investing in research that is already further along at another institution which is not a member of their partnership, and both would benefit from increased efficiency and sharing of data, germplasm and results more openly,” she said.

The agricultural chief scientists agreed on a series of objectives and established a series of “global research collaboration platforms” to share information and encourage research partnerships, Woteki said. (See following story for details.)

She said the United States had proposed the meeting of the agricultural chief scientists, or MACS, when leaders of the G-20 countries met in Mexico in June. The Mexican government, which holds the presidency of the G-20, took the lead and arranged the meeting, which was held in Guadalajara September 24 to 27. The scientists agreed to meet annually, and also toured Mexico’s new germplasm collection and laboratory.

Woteki also said that she and other U.S. officials came up with the idea of the meeting when they were getting ready for G-8 and G-20 discussions on how to intensify agricultural production in Africa.

“As we were preparing we recognized that there had never been a meeting of the agricultural science policy makers,” Woteki said.

Language, Woteki said, is not generally a barrier to sharing information because “the language of science now is English,” but it can still be a challenge in some cases.

During the meeting, the scientists discussed the sharing of specific information systems and barriers to that. The U.S. government is encouraging other countries to adopt its genetic resource information network known as GRIN, which has been translated into five languages.

Another U.S. advancement that was discussed was the bovine chip, a device the size of a credit card that is put in the ear of a calf when it is born and can identify whether the calf has the genetic background for high milk production so that dairy farmers can decide to keep calf or not.

Woteki described the chip as biotechnology from years of research in USDA Agricultural Research Service labs and land grant universities that “allows farmers to use classical breeding methods.”

There was no discussion of genetic engineering of plants or animals at the meeting, but there was a focus on genomic data, which is important for classical breeding, Woteki said.

One problem that countries including the United States will have to address is a policy on open access to scholarly mechanisms that contain research information. The U.S. National Institutes of Health has a policy of open access, but USDA does not, and is now studying the NIH policy, Woteki said. The United Kingdom and Canada have already established such policies, she added.

A topic for future meetings may be the timing of launching major international initiatives. France has organized an initiative on the wheat genome, she noted, and there was discussion about initiatives on how non-leguminous crops could fix nitrogen and the perennialization of crops.

The scientists recognized that most increases in agricultural productivity will come from research rather than putting more land into production, Woteki said.

During the meeting, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization formally launched The Tropical Agriculture Platform, which aims to achieve greater coherence for agriculture innovation in the tropics, with a particular focus on smallholder farmers.

The scientists also reviewed the status and progress of Global Research Initiatives endorsed by the G-20, such as the International Research Initiative for Wheat Improvement, the Global Rice Science Partnership and existing collaborations on maize, livestock, fish and greenhouse gases. And they discussed the constraints on rural advisory services for farmers in developing countries and Mexico’s Sustainable Modernization of Traditional Agriculture Initiative.

Agricultural chief scientists from 15 countries and entities participated in the meeting:
  • Argentina
  • Australia
  • Brazil
  • Canada
  • China
  • European Union
  • France
  • Germany
  • Indonesia
  • Japan
  • Mexico
  • Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Spain
  • United Kingdom

In addition, the meeting was attended by representatives of the following organizations:
  • Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research
  • Center for International Tropical Agriculture
  • International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center
  • International Food Policy Research Institute
  • United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization
  • International Federation for Agricultural Development
  • Inter-American Institute for Co-operation in Agriculture
  • Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,
  • Global Access Technology for Development Foundation
  • Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture

The Gates, Global Access and Syngenta foundations made presentations on public-private partnerships as a way to accelerate agricultural innovation.
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SOURCE: USDA Economic Research Service – The Complementary Roles of the Public and Private Sectors in U.S. Agricultural Research and Development