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Williams, J.T. and N. Haq. 1993. International new crops policy. p. 5-11. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), New crops. Wiley, New York.

International New Crops Policy

J.T. Williams and N. Haq


In an era when funding for agricultural research, whether international or domestic, is decreasing and against a background of a substantial increase in agricultural production worldwide, it is difficult to capitalize on the scientific groundswell of support for new crops. Almost certainly, the major hope for any research program to be sustained is to build up its capacity for strategic planning. This involves the assessment of a number of policy options.

The discussion is complicated by issues of sustainability, environment, and loss of plant resources. None will be addressed by focusing narrowly on, for instance, small farmers, or on agricultural technology as an inefficient means of alleviating rural poverty, or on investment opportunities. Also, the issues differ between disparate economic and social systems of industrial and developing countries. Furthermore, the research areas associated with new crops span interest in alternative crops for crop diversification, in old crops for new purposes, and in new crops for new needs.

Although this symposium is oriented towards the interests of the United States, this paper will address the international complexities, since no country can afford to isolate itself from research elsewhere. In addition, funding sources stress the need to strengthen capacities to cooperate effectively, and this requires sound planning. It is also often forgotten that international research has evolved over the past two decades. The green revolution as a plant production instrument of development cooperation, conceived as a quick countermeasure to hunger, was quickly followed by efforts to strengthen national research systems. Lessons from the green revolution were taken into development cooperation philosophies so that the focus of rural development was on the small farmer and strategies for self-help and structural adjustments. The cultivation of indigenous food crops (many of them domesticates, which became recognized as having potential for wider use) was certainly in place before ecology and the preservation of natural resources became pivotal concerns of development policy.


Perhaps the biggest gap which would enhance policy decisions is the lack of a specifically targeted information system on new crops. Despite a number of symposia, such as those of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1978 (Ritchie 1979), the United States National Symposium on New Crops in 1988 (Janick and Simon 1990), or special reports spanning the last 15 years of the National Research Council (NAS 1975; NRC 1979), FAO (1982), or the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) (Arora 1985), there is no comprehensive database retrieval system for new crops. In 1987, at the first major international symposium on new crops, Williams (1989) proposed that decision making on new crops depended on the following factors: (a) Does the species need to be brought into cultivation, is potential production adequate without major breeding efforts, and will insurance against genetic vulnerability be made through active genetic resources programs? (b) What is known about domestication and the spectrum of diversity in the genepool? (c) What decisions on conservation need to be made to sustain research and availability of materials? Discussions later added the need for data on basic successes and failures of agronomic experiments, many not published widely.

A number of databases exist, such as that on a past program of USDA on new crops research (Princeton 1977), a specific comprehensive one on legumes (International Legume Database and Information Service), specific taxonomic ones at botanical gardens such as TROPICOS at Missouri Botanical Garden, a semi-arid lands one at Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, and a palms one at New York Botanical Gardens. The needs have been translated into action for plant resources of regions (Lemmens et al. 1989, for Southeast Asia), proposals for economic plants databases (Smithsonian/IUCN proposal for the Americas, unpublished), and others. The International Center for Underutilised Crops has started to establish a database on underutilized crops which specifically focuses on potential and agronomic successes and failures.

Such a facility would provide the capacity to understand and analyze global, regional, and national needs in their economic, political, and technological environments. It would also provide the logical basis for cooperative and enhanced international attention to the problems of new crops. If it were to be organized fully as an international effort, it would provide three added advantages. First, it could positively link public and private sector research, and probably linkages between university scientists and those of the productive sector in developing countries. Second, it could highlight the needs of developing countries so that mutually beneficial cooperation could be forged despite the economic and social discrepancies between North and South. Third, it could help in developing policies based on priorities.

The idea of a comprehensive database is not new. It has been promulgated by botanic gardens since they are repositories of much unpublished information (Booth and Lucas 1989). FAO is discussing a global information system, and the Institut de la Vie has convened meetings of interested scientists to discuss genetic resources information systems and what gaps exist. New vision, avoiding vested interests, is urgently needed.


The need for priorities is essential at the present time, when the immediate goals of alternative agriculture, agribusiness, and securing food supply through the prudent use of the world's natural resources differ and often conflict with the preservation of indigenous nations and the rights of smallholders and the landless poor. The World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED 1987) and the forthcoming UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 have and will point out that we cannot afford to go for food security at any price. But crop diversification in the developed world or agricultural development elsewhere is not possible without research. It is essential to set priorities and take action, recognizing the constraints posed by bilateral and multilateral assistance agencies, national research systems, the lack of congruence between existing research budgets, and the economic importance of major commodities or commodity groupings (Ruttan 1988) and biodiversity imperatives or environmental rehabilitation (McNeely et al. 1990). Arguments for research support must be supported by the analysis of expected demand and input prices, types of technologies (managerial, biological, chemical, or other), and the public-good nature of research outputs. There must also be clear ideas as to whether the research outputs are pre-technology, prototype or usable technology (Evenson 1983), in order to evaluate the balance between public sector or private sector inputs.

Giving further thought to these criteria, a number of important possibilities come to light:

India. In 1982 an All-India Coordinated Research Project on Under-Utilized and Under-Exploited Plants was initiated to include research on selected food crops (winged bean, rice bean, amaranth, buckwheat, chenopods), fodder plants (woody species), energy plants (sugarcane, bamboo, sweet potato), hydrocarbon and industrial plants (guayule, jojoba, and others), oil yielding plants, and some drug producing plants. All these were prioritized according to economic importance. In parallel, priorities were established for plants for extreme environmental and emergency situations in desert, arid, saline, and flooded areas.

The India program has been closely associated with a Commonwealth effort on life-support species, and a symposium for Asia and the Pacific was held in 1987 (Paroda et al. 1988), where the potential species for India, Nepal, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand, Pakistan, and a number of other countries were itemized. Emphasis for priorities was laid on stress prone environments.

Europe. In recent years, as in other parts of the developed world, interest in new crops relates to alternative crops and new uses for existing crops, due to surplus production of major crops. A number of countries have assessed the potential of flax, plants which contain vegetable oils of specific composition, plants which produce essential oils, alkaloids and other chemical products, a limited number of ethnic salad and vegetable plants with potential in the health foods industry, and others. Buckwheat, borage, and evening primrose are among the new crops.

Whereas most priorities relate to reducing the need for imports through added-value products, some countries without the surpluses of the EEC are seriously examining new crop strategies, e.g. Poland. Maybe, for developed regions, the solution to surpluses is not so much alternative crops as the development of industrial uses for crop products, exploiting their value as continually renewable resources (Tayler 1989).

Africa. A milestone in priority setting was seen when a group of Nigerian scientists, along with colleagues from Cameroon and Ghana, discussed underutilized plants and their diversity and set priorities on the basis of genetic variability and erosion, economic potential and relevance to local communities, and itemized 22 species for 15 different products/purposes. Scientists are now formulating a research organization to take action in this area (Diversity 1990).

These efforts will become complementary to those proposed by the United Nations University Institute for Natural Resources in Africa, which will be a research and training center with a specific program on traditional plant resources (Okigbo 1991).

These three examples show priority setting for diverse purposes and against three diverse funding scenarios. In the first, there is commitment by the national government, in the second by industry, and in the third, international aid organizations have to be convinced.


Priority setting has important implications for funding. We can ask the question, why are public funds not often available when priority species have been determined? Leaving aside the unusual examples of winged bean, kenaf, rosy periwinkle, vetiver grass, and other new crops which have received funding in the past, what about clear priorities, especially those where there are demonstrable benefits to be accrued? Clearly private funds will not be available until the crop is near commercial. Additionally, public funding, especially donor funding for development, is rarely available since priorities for their availability usually relate to major crops. We are left with the conundrum of mobilizing funding: the following comments might be helpful.

To a governing authority, new crops often appear to be very high risk ventures, largely because of research interests leading to a low rate of return in the short to medium term. Additionally, researchers often pay little attention to how to integrate new crops into existing or modified cropping patterns and farming systems. Few funding sources will take the risk of paying for domesticating and bringing a new species into production, because the cost is high and long-term funding is required.

Nonetheless, policies can be justified which introduce new crops into new areas and incorporate new species into farming systems, especially in view of sustainability and environmental concerns. In both of these areas the public sector is the logical focus (Smith 1988).

Policies relating to domestication and development of hitherto wild species will have to be related to lucrative markets, which might well be finite and temporary, and a risk analysis performed. In a limited number of cases, small, risky projects can indeed be justified, because they are diluted in the large pool of investments in agricultural or products research. But many opportunities exist for justification under the umbrella of conservation and protection of natural resources.


An international symposium was held in 1987, sponsored by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), IBPGR, International Foundation for Science (IFS), Commonwealth Development Corporation, EEC Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation, British Council, Federal Republic of Germany-GTZ, and Southampton University, UK. A recurring theme in the discussions was the need to network research and to include partnerships between developed and developing countries. As a result, the International Center for Underutilised Crops (ICUC) was established. The ICUC has temporary headquarters in England, but the trustees have agreed as a matter of policy that it should move to a developing country in the near future.

For the first time an organizational framework came into being, albeit recently, to establish networking, priorities, and to act as an information and training resource, the latter for the benefit of developing countries. Relevant policy decisions include priority attention to the following areas: new crops of wide applicability over whole regions or ecoclimatic zones, species not being researched by international agricultural research centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and technical assistance to developing countries as a major feature of the research and development.

Recently ICUC joined with the agricultural program of the Commonwealth Science Council (CSC) to establish a testing network for two underutilized species--lablab (Dolichos lablab) and carob (Ceratonia siliqua)--and is preparing a research strategy on small grains.


It is clear that all new crops research needs to tap the diversity of plants from all parts of the world. Although the information base is slender (see section II above), germplasm acquisition and testing need to be looked at with a clear distinction made between plant introduction and plant genetic resources programs. This is an area of great international misunderstanding and misinformation where supposed controversies rage. In practice, scientists and others view such plant resources as a global commons which forms a heritage valuable to all who can use it. This principle has been embodied in an International Undertaking promulgated by FAO. However, the lessons of the past, which often stemmed from exploitative situations, have impugned many unjustified ulterior motives to scientific activities of the present, especially in relation to North-South linkages. Also, global public interest requires management and cooperation between nations--something which often proves to be difficult, due to diversity in interests and values. The South sees international law and international organizations as instruments for change despite their own reluctance to make long term commitments to environmental and genetic resource conservation. International cooperation is based more on common human interests than rigid law, but the whole arena is an evolving one and not widely appreciated by those debating regulatory procedures for germplasm. Let us see if out of the morass of literature and the deliberations of the FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources we can arrive at some clear facts on which to develop policies.

First of all, plant introduction is a way of testing materials from elsewhere in the world; it was the basis of many agricultural operations of governments in the past. Many programs, depending on the materials, grew into plant breeding, which necessitated a much wider range of diversity and number of samples, or plant genetic resources, to sustain the breeding. From this grew the need for genetic conservation of primitive forms, mostly of domesticates, and for these to be available through international programs.

Many plants used for plant introduction represent very limited diversity, often in samples with high heterogeneity, but sufficient for testing and development of products or the development of forage and forest lands with species that are selected but not really bred. Only where the original habitats are being degraded will there be needs for genetic conservation programs, and much of the need for conservation will be addressed through nature reserves. Some exciting possibilities have been opened up through debt for development exchange. Whereas most of these have been for nature conservation, some have been brokered to enhance international agricultural research partnerships. Opportunities exist for those involved with plant introduction to broker similar mutually advantageous arrangements, both through the public and the private sectors.

Secondly, as already pointed out, attention to internationalization of research should forge partnerships between germplasm donors and germplasm users. The best example of this is the germplasm collection efforts related to major crops and forages where use of materials is balanced by effective aid packages, with CGIAR providing freely new derivatives as breeding materials. Even in a situation where plant variety rights are taken on developed materials, they and parental materials are still available for further research by anyone, including germplasm donors.

Third, the people who benefit from the plant introduction should attempt to see that the people from where the resource came also benefit, and plans for this should be built into the research proposals. The benefits can be tangible, such as provision of training and other mechanisms to strengthen weak programs in developing countries, or through material transfer agreements as developed by the US National Institute of Health, which screens plants. In the event of a company licensing a product, the NIH makes all efforts to negotiate the inclusion of royalties to the donor country. In what is said to be the first deal of its kind (Washington Post 1991), the world's largest pharmaceutical company has agreed to provide $1 million to the National Institute of Biodiversity (INBIO) in Costa Rica for the right to screen organisms for possible drug use and royalty payments if any become marketable, and for INBIO to help to protect natural resources. This is creating jobs in Costa Rica through the training of locals to assist INBIO.

Fourth, beneficial use of plant resources is often well down the road (10 to 15 years), and many resources may prove to be of no value.

Fifth, whereas there is focus through a number of programs for new crops research and development, there is no simple focus for coordinated international work on survey, collection, conservation, and documentation of the genetic resources. Current activities of IBPGR and FAO are limited by funding restraints, and in any event, genetic conservation of new crop genepools is so intimately linked to rural development and commercial interests that perhaps a new mechanism should be considered. Responsibility could be placed with the relevant international center, possibly in association with a number of externally evaluated, nongovernmental organizations with multiple constituencies, which could attract funding more readily than others associated mostly with public sector agencies.

Sixth, apart from the need for genetic conservation programs where there is clear evidence of genetic erosion, many underutilized crops are likely to remain in their agroecosystems where they have proved useful. Many such crops in developing countries are grown from propagules produced and saved by farmers, and they're likely to persist without sophisticated genetic resources programs. More advanced programs are only needed when germplasm enhancement is warranted and priorities for the crops have been established.

In conclusion, policy development requires the good will of all, whether researchers or authorities, and sensitivity to the issues we have outlined, which R&D on new crops will generate. However, quantum jumps in establishment of policy will emerge when attempts are made, on the one hand, to develop adequate information and data, and on the other, to effectively work together.


Last update April 1, 1997 aw