Agricultural research: what role in disaster and conflict relief?
by Mark Winslow, international development consultant August 2005

Natural disasters and conflicts derail agricultural development. Droughts and floods level crops and kill livestock; wars damage the infrastructure, social networks and human capital needed to get inputs to farms, and outputs to markets. Is research a priority when farmers’ needs are obvious and urgent? This article examines how the 15 international agricultural research centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR, are addressing this question.

What is the CGIAR?

The CGIAR’s non-profit, apolitical centres are sponsored by the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). They are funded by 46 countries (including 18 from the developing world), 13 international/regional organisations and banks and four philanthropic foundations. The CGIAR took shape as a result of the successes in breeding higher-yielding wheat and rice varieties that helped prevent mass famine in South Asia in the 1970s, often referred to as the ‘green revolution’. The agenda expanded during subsequent decades; the CGIAR’s mission is now to ‘achieve sustainable food security and reduce poverty in developing countries through scientific research and research-related activities in the fields of agriculture, forestry, fisheries, policy, and environment’.

Helping countries rebuild

Emergency relief is not mentioned in the CGIAR’s mission statement. Yet its 15 centres have contributed to many post-crisis rebuilding efforts since the mid-1980s. Best known for plant breeding, the centres have often been asked to provide seeds and to help rebuild seed multiplication, testing and delivery systems. But some (both inside and outside the CGIAR) have questioned whether this was research, and whether this aid approach was effective. Under urgent pressure to get results, centres and aid agencies sometimes imported foreign seeds that had not been sufficiently tested in the crisis zone. Massive influxes of seed of just a few varieties could reduce agro-biodiversity on farms, adding further risk; flooding the market with free foreign seeds puts pressure on local seed businesses, impairing recovery rather than accelerating it. Better approaches to seed aid were needed – and that called for research.

Following the Rwanda genocide and civil war, intensive studies investigated how local seed systems had been affected. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), based in Cali, Colombia, convened a partnership of eight centres specialising in different crops and farming systems, in close partnership with a number of NGOs and funded by the donor community. In addition to Rwanda, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and academic and NGO partners subsequently examined relief seed interventions in parts of Uganda, Sudan, Somalia, Niger and Mali affected by conflict or drought. In Mozambique, ICRISAT worked with local partners to develop tools to enhance seed relief responses following the floods of 2002.

These studies found that massive foreign seed aid may not be necessary if a conflict is as short as that in Rwanda. Local seed systems are resilient, and can recover. Instead of seed giveaways, the researchers recommended that seed vouchers should be issued to farmers. Farmers would choose the best seed suppliers and trade the vouchers for seed at local seed fairs, usually organised by NGOs. Seed sellers could then redeem the vouchers for cash from the relief agency, jump-starting the local seed economy rather than undermining it. Catholic Relief Services has since implemented seed fairs and seed voucher programmes in a number of different countries, as reported on page 44.

Rebuilding national capacities

National expertise in agricultural research is often devastated by conflict and natural disasters. Centres found that the crop research networks that they had helped create and foster across Africa, Asia and Latin America became valuable safety nets following such emergencies. Rwanda, for example, had contributed knowledge and materials to regional networks prior to its crisis, and when the conflict subsided its neighbours returned the favour through these same networks, helping to train replacements for staff who had fled or been killed. Where such networks were absent, as in the case of newly-independent East Timor, the CGIAR centres helped fill the gap; the Australian Council for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) quickly assembled a consortium including five centres to provide that country with planting material of the best varieties of the island’s staple food crops, and trained East Timorese in seed production and distribution.

Gene banks

Gene banks are another vital safety net. CGIAR centres store more than half a million varieties, including wild species related to staple food crops. Centres study these varieties and lines to understand their valuable characteristics, and provide them to plant breeders worldwide as a public service. Preventing loss from extinction or mishandling was the original rationale for this conservation effort, but experience has shown that it is also a vital resource for disaster/conflict recovery.

For example in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge under the Pol Pot regime (1975–78) extinguished thousands of local rice types, replacing them with imported Chinese varieties that were ill-suited to local conditions – one of several reasons why rice production crashed and people starved during that period. Fortunately, some (though far from all) of the lost varieties had been collected before the regime came to power, and kept safely in the gene bank of the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). IRRI trained a new Cambodian rice research team and repatriated this germplasm, and jointly with NGOs helped restore rice production across the country. Rice germplasm has also been repatriated in West Africa (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire) by the West Africa Rice Development Association (WARDA). Germplasm of other food crops has been restored in Afghanistan and Iraq by the International Maize and Wheat Center (CIMMYT), the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), ICRISAT and the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI).

CGIAR centres have carried the genetic diversity theme beyond gene banks. Marine biodiversity was used to help the Solomon Islands recover from ethnic conflict and insurgency in 1998. The Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), led by Australia and New Zealand, sought ways to overcome the poverty and unemployment that were fuelling frustration and violence. The WorldFish Center in Malaysia joined with the government and NGOs to develop and spread small-scale aquatic enterprises. They adapted technology from French Polynesia and the Cook Islands for cultivating black pearl oysters; they introduced methods for the sustainable harvest and cultivation of giant clams, coral, crustaceans and ornamental fish species for the aquarium trade; and they showed villagers how to sustainably cultivate and market sea cucumbers for human consumption, all following ecologically-responsible guidelines from the Marine Aquarium Council.

Human health and nutrition

The CGIAR has also helped to reduce some health and nutritional vulnerabilities created by these crises. Grasspea (Lathyrus sativus) is a legume crop that contains a neuro-toxin that can cause crippling paralysis (lathyrism), mental retardation and other debilitating effects. Normally, Ethiopians consume only small amounts of it, but when drought strikes they have no choice but to eat more of this highly drought-tolerant crop to survive. ICARDA has used a special research technique (somaclonal variation) to develop low-toxin grasspea lines, and Ethiopia’s national research team is using them to breed locally-adapted, safe-to-eat varieties.

Refugees fleeing conflict or hiding from marauding warriors quickly become malnourished. When their staple crops fail, as is happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo due to the Uganda Variant of the Africa Cassava Mosaic Virus, they are in serious trouble. Research at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) has developed virus-resistant varieties; through USAID support, IITA is flying resistant plant cuttings into this remote area to stem the epidemic and reduce hunger.

Even in the relative safety of relief camps, refugees face limited food choices. Vitamin A deficiency is widespread in Africa, and especially harms pregnant women and young children. The International Potato Center (CIP) developed sweetpotato varieties with higher vitamin A levels, which could provide 40% of the dietary requirement for this vitamin. An NGO called the James Arwata Foundation is delivering vine cuttings of these varieties to refugee camps in northern Uganda during lulls in the fighting, when farmers have a chance to plant them in fields nearby.

Helping relief agencies become more effective and efficient

Haste can easily become waste in post-crisis situations; rapid assessments to diagnose the most important problems can help set aid on the right track. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) helped newly-independent Mozambique assess its poverty situation, and train national researchers in policy analysis. ICARDA helped Afghanistan to rebuild its agricultural sector by carrying out a large-scale needs assessment in 2002, covering all provinces and interviewing thousands of farmers.

Diagnostics can also help solve problems in aid delivery. USAID’s Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance was concerned that its aid to livestock herders in East Africa following successive droughts was creating handout dependency instead of stimulating recovery. The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the ASARECA regional agricultural research network studied drought-plagued parts of Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. Instead of handouts, they recommended that USAID support vulnerability-reduction steps such as organising herders to collectively manage herd sizes and deal with traders pre- and post-drought; developing ‘fodder banks’ to alleviate the feed shortage during droughts; providing better animal health care services so that fewer animals would die when drought-stressed; and developing alternative activities to supplement the incomes of pastoralists.

Preparing for future crises

Many are predicting future agricultural disasters caused by global warming. Climate change may scorch some farming areas, and flood or freeze others. Farmers may have to quickly change crops and farming practices; pests and diseases may migrate to new areas where they have suddenly become well-adapted, wreaking havoc on crops that were never bred to resist them. For example, CIP found evidence of shifts of white-fly pests in Peru following the El Niño warming and increased rainfall of 1997–98.

Research can help combat this threat, although the only permanent solution is to control greenhouse gas emissions. The CGIAR centres are researching farming systems that extract more carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the soil or in plant biomass. They are also developing mathematical models based on known responses of crops and pests to climate, which can help countries to forecast what they might face in the years ahead, so that they can prepare. Crops are also being bred for resistance to potential pests and more severe drought.


Over the past decade, the CGIAR’s post-crisis rebuilding approach has grown beyond technology transfer to emphasise strategic research that helps partners i) diagnose and solve food security problems; ii) rebuild human and institutional capacities for agricultural research; and iii) make relief aid more effective and efficient. Through this more systematic and knowledge-driven approach, the centres’ contributions should continue to improve in scope, quality and effectiveness in the years to come.

Mark Winslowis an international development consultant who has worked for four CGIAR centres as a plant breeder and manager of research and information resource programmes. His email address is: Further information about the CGIAR centres is available at

References and further reading

I. de Soysa and N. P. Gleditsch, To Cultivate Peace: Agriculture in a World of Conflict, PRIO Report 1/99. Oslo: International Peace Research Institute.
Louise Sperling and Catherine Longley, ‘Beyond Seeds and Tools: Effective Support to Farmers in Emergencies’, Disasters 26(4), 2002, pp. 283–387. (Also see companion articles in that issue on improving approaches to seed relief aid.)
Robin Buruchara, Louise Sperling, Peter Ewell and Roger Kirkby, ‘The Role of Research Institutions in Seed-Related Disaster Relief: Seeds of Hope Experiences in Rwanda’, Disasters, 26(4), 2002, pp. 288–301.
Surendra Varma and Mark Winslow, Healing Wounds (Washington DC: Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), 2005). Available online at
Patricia Delaney, Avtar Kaul and Calvin Miller, Weathering Natural Disasters – Refocusing Relief and Development through Improved Agricultural and Environmental Practices, Penang, Malaysia: Future Harvest and CARE. Available online at