A Tradition of Helping Farmers Around the World

The world’s population has more than doubled in the past 50 years, from 3.3 billion in 1965 to more than 7 billion today. While more than 800 million people around the world remain food insecure, that figure would be far higher had farmers not been able to generate increases in global food production of at least 250 percent over the same period. Using more resources, in the form of expanded area under cultivation, increased use of irrigation, and applying more inputs per acre, accounted for about 53 percent of that increase on average across the entire period, but the remainder was due better productivity as a result of agricultural research.


There are many entities where such research leads to agricultural innovations, with scientists from various types of institutions often working together. They include private companies and research laboratories, public and private universities, and research agencies supported by national governments.

However, one component of that complex system that has generated productivity gains around the world for more than 50 years are the now-15 research centers that make up the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, or the CGIAR.

The CGIAR was formally established in 1971, a joint effort by the Rockefeller Foundation, the World Bank, and the United Nations, although the roots of such international agricultural research go back further. One of the original components of the CGIAR, the International Wheat and Maize (Corn) Improvement Center (or CIMMYT), can trace its founding back to the Office of Special Studies (OSS) on corn and wheat research set up by the government of Mexico with funding help and direction from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1943. A wheat researcher from the United States, a brand-new Ph.D. named Norman Borlaug, was hired a year later. CIMMYT was set up in 1966, absorbing the labs and researchers who had worked under the OSS program. The impact of Borlaug’s breakthrough research on breeding wheat varieties that were well-suited to grow in more arid climates spread beyond Mexico into Latin America and Asia. The use of the semi-dwarf varieties he developed, along with increased use of irrigation and fertilizer, led to the so-called Green Revolution in those areas, and earned Borlaug the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.

CIMMYT was one of the founding centers in the CGIAR, along with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), headquartered in the Philippines, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), headquartered in Colombia, and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), headquartered in Nigeria. Over time, they have added additional centers that focus on additional aspects of agriculture, such as crops grown in arid regions, livestock, fish, agricultural policy, plant breeding. agroforestry, and water policy issues.

In 2016, the CGIAR had expenditures of $929 million across the entire system. About 60 percent of those expenses were covered by direct contributions from countries, multilateral institutions, and charitable foundations. Top donors last year were the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and the World Bank, along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. According to data reported by USDA’s Economic Research Service, the U.S. contribution has averaged about $119 million over the last five years, pincluding $246 million for 2016.

While most of the system’s centers are located in developing countries, benefits over the years have flowed to farmers in both the developed and developing world. It is estimated that globally, every dollar invested in CGIAR since 1971 has produced $9 worth of additional food. According to research conducted by Dr. Phil Pardey and others at the University of Minnesota, between 1971 and 1996, the United States invested $134 million in CGIAR wheat and rice research. By 1996, that research produced more than $3.7 billion in added value to the US economy. The global economic benefits of the improved rice varieties developed at the CGIAR rice research center amount to $10.8 billion annually, about 150 times the research investment made by IRRI and its partners in national agricultural research systems.

In addition to benefits realized from the staple crops research described above, CGIAR work on disease and pests afflicting both crops and animals have proved beneficial. The economic returns of such work far exceed the CGIAR’s total investment in Africa since 1971. Biocontrol research in Africa subsequently achieved notable success in combating a number of pests, such as the mango mealybug and water hyacinth. In just one example, it is estimated that work addressing mealybug damage to the African cassava crop has generated a net present value of US$9 billion to farmers growing that crop.

The Emerging Pathogens Institute (EPI) established at the University of Florida in 2010 is an interdisciplinary effort at the University aimed at identifying and combating plant, animal, and human diseases around the world. African Swine Fever (ASF), a highly contagious viral disease of pigs, is a threat to American farmers in states with tropical climates like Florida. EPI scientists are working with the CGIAR’s International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) colleagues in Nairobi, Kenya to prevent the disease from spreading to this country.

Editor’s Note: This blog is by Stephanie Mercer, with the Farm Journal Foundation. It presents the author’s perspective on a wide range of timely agricultural policy topics, touching on both domestic and international issues.