Table of Contents
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
- DEVELOPMENT OF PRIORITIES
- INTERNATIONALIZATION OF RESEARCH ON NEW CROPS
- GERMPLASM ASPECTS
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
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
- There are substantial opportunities to develop sustainable production
systems on a number of fragile resource areas (Ruttan 1991). These include the
semi-arid tropics of Africa, the tropical rain forests of Latin America, and
arid areas such as the southwestern United States. However, none are likely to
become important components of the global food supply system.
- There are substantial opportunities to develop new crop production
(especially woody species) on degraded lands marginal to food production in
many parts of the world. These are low production lands where parallel
generation of off-farm income can be a key social return. But allocation of
scarce research resources has to be fully justifiable (Schuh 1990), and often
new institutional arrangements are needed to give communities more control over
- Much of the sustainability and environmental issues will be addressed
through sustainable production on the robust agricultural lands. Interests of
environmentalists will only be partly met by concentrating on local marginal
lands; the major issues of economic development and efficient ways of
alleviating rural poverty will not be addressed at all. Hence, many new crops
could well become parts of multiple cropping systems. This means that aside
from new crop development, farming systems research will be needed. Most
research on multiple cropping relates to improved food crop yields and
sustainability, and substantial results have been obtained through cooperative
network activities (Hoque 1986). There is interest in using plants capable of
providing products and services in addition to fuelwood and food; and selection
of the right germplasm for the system is critical (Turnbull and de la Cruz
- It is not possible to propose public sector/private sector partnerships in
an empirical way. Outside the developed world private R&D is located
primarily in Latin America and Asia and concentrated in a few large countries
(Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, and India). Further, many less developed countries
could increase national welfare by releasing constraints on private R&D
(Pray and Echeverria 1991). Additionally, without patents and rights,
investment is likely to be small.
- Most private sector interest is related to plantations, followed by plant
breeding; pesticides and machinery rank much lower and food and feed processing
lower still (Pray and Echeverria 1991). Historically, the private sector has
made major contributions to the development of plantation crops, and new crops
taken up by the plantation industry will have a much greater chance of success
than those promoted unilaterally by scientists or aid donors (Corley 1989).
- Priority setting will probably fall within the framework of:
This symposium provides examples of all of these, including information on the
USDA/ARS reallocated funding to projects on non-food and industrial uses of
farm commodities at the North Regional Research Center, Peoria, IL; Western
Regional Research Center, Albany, CA; and the Southern Regional Research Center
in New Orleans, LA.
- enhancing supplies of deficit products in specific areas such as vegetable
oils, although there have to be compelling reasons for use of new crops;
- using new crops to satisfy particular international trade
- using new crops to produce innovative products with a market potential;
- using old crops for new purposes of major trade significance or for local
- addressing stressed ecosystems by the use of new crops, e.g. on sloping
lands, degraded lands or acid or saline soils.
- It has been eloquently pointed out recently that the paradigms of
environmental management and economic development are evolving. The paradigm
of resource management which developed in the 1970s is still the dominant way
of thinking, where all major types of resources should be incorporated into
calculations of national wealth. However, ecodevelopment is overtaking this as
a paradigm (Mathews and Tunstall 1991), and the integration of ecology and
economics is urgent and needs to be based on accurate, more timely, and more
credible information. Since this information does not, in practice, exist for
new crops, some recent diverse examples illustrate the varying criteria for
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
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
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
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
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Last update April 1, 1997