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Farming's global web

Networking is the name for it now. Spurred by tightening supplies of research funds and by the advantages of collaboration, agricultural scientists are increasingly forging multidisciplinary teams to tackle the many constraints to boosting food production.

Instead of individuals working in isolation, research networks tap group expertise and reduce costs by pooling resources and avoiding overlaps. Starting in the 1920s with regional networks that focused on corn and wheat research in the United States, agricultural research networks have expanded into an intricate global web linking scientists in over 100 countries.

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In a world torn by political strife, networking in farming research stands out as a rare example of peaceful and productive international cooperation.

Scientists organize networks to accelerate the transfer of appropriate technology to farmers. The oldest and most extensive networks test crop breeding material, and most of them are coordinated by centers under the umbrella of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, headquartered at the World Bank.

The Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), for example, coordinates the International Rice Testing Program that annually sends rice trials to about 75 countries. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico distributes elite samples of wheat, triticale, and barley to approximately 100 countries every year. Participants in international nurseries check the performance of samples, select breeding lines that look suitable for their countries, and report results so that they can be distributed to all collaborators.

International nurseries build stability and safety into crop varieties because germplasm is evaluated in a wide range of environments. Breeders identify material resistant to diseases, pests, problem soils, or adverse climates and incorporate desirable traits into crops. International nurseries clearly surmount ideological, religious, ethnic, and language barriers between nations: More than 130 developing countries joined such networks during the 1970 s.

Other networks have evolved to investigate livestock diseases, improve understanding of farming systems, design low-cost machinery for small-scale farmers, and keep third-world scientists abreast of the latest developments in their fields. The Selective Dissemination of Information Service (SDI) of the International Livestock Center for Africa in Addis Ababa, for example, already reaches 250 researchers in that continent within six months of starting up in 1983. Each individual in the SDI network receives a monthly printout summarizing publications in his or her field. The India-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics is starting a similar information network. Such services are especially valuable to third-world scientists who are often handicapped by poor library facilities.

Networking has produced dramatic payoffs. The annual wheat harvest in India, derived mostly from material tested in CIMMYT-coordinated nurseries, is worth around $4 billion. CIMMYT's international nurseries have launched 70 corn varieties in 20 developing countries. And by 1979, the International Rice Testing Program had given birth to 30 high-yielding varieties in 18 Asian, African, and Latin American countries.

A less tangible but equally important benefit of networking is institution-building in the third world. Most agricultural networks offer training courses to upgrade the skills of scientists and technicians in developing nations. IRRI, for example, has trained 5,000 rice researchers from dozens of countries in the last decade. As national agricultural research and extension agencies thus strengthen, they participate even more effectively in networks. Furthermore, network coordination generally rotates so third-world nationals can develop leadership skills.

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Agriculture provided an early seedbed for networking, but the idea is spreading into other research areas, such as health, fisheries, and renewable energy. Networks are powerful tools for third-world development because they maximize the efficient use of scarce resources, they focus on common problems, and they buttress the efforts of nations to help themselves.