Jul 042012
 
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The GCP community, its labours and joys

If tools and resources are not put to use, then we labour in vain...GCP contributes to food security by providing breeders with integrated tools, techniques and services to speed up the selection cycle, be this by conventional or molecular breeding. GCP focuses on developing new materials and new techniques and delivering these, and the appropriate breeding tools, technologies and services, to breeders. I think GCP has been one of the most successful builders of research and development partnerships.

The Board’s focus is now on auditing the Programme, and mapping a strategy to sustain its successful partnerships and systems, so that these can continue to deliver products and capacity to the developing world.”

Seatbelts on please! Time to take a tour with Andrew, for an ‘aerial’ view of GCP from the very  ‘top’.

Please meet Andrew Bennett (pictured), the Chair of GCP’s Executive Board. Among other responsibilities, he is also President of the Tropical Agricultural Association, UK, chairs the SciDev.Net Board, and previously chaired the CIFOR Board. He was formerly Executive Director of the Syngenta Foundation and Director of Rural Livelihoods and Environment at the Department for International Development (DFID, UK) where he was responsible for professional advice on policy and programmes on livelihoods, natural resources, environment, sustainable development and research. Andrew has worked on development programmes in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Pacific and the Caribbean.

Today, Andrew shares his perspectives on GCP’s work, its impact, the challenges, the community GCP has built, and the role of the Board. Please read on…

When was the GCP Board established, and what is its profile and role?
The Board was set up in mid-2008 towards the end of the first phase of the Programme. A review recommended that there be a fully independent Board, comprising people who had no conflict of interest with the Programme to facilitate decision-making.

Board members have between them a wide variety of skills and backgrounds, ranging from expertise in molecular biology to development assistance, socioeconomics, academia, finance, governance and change management.

We are committed to the role that can be played by science in development, and to the Programme. We have offered advice and helped the Programme’s Consortium Committee and management refocus the Programme. By all accounts, they seem happy with how things have evolved.

Because GCP is hosted by CIMMYT, the Board does not have to deal with any policy issues. That is the responsibility of the Consortium Committee. Our role is more to provide advice and to help with decision-making and implementation, which is great as we’ve been able to focus on the Programme’s science and people.

How long have you been involved with GCP?
Since the Board was established in 2008.

What does the GCP tagline – ‘Partnerships in modern crop breeding for food security’ – mean for you?
It means that all our undertakings are geared towards producing crop varieties that are tolerant to a range of environments, as well as being socially acceptable and appealing to farmers and markets.

How do you upgrade the planting material farmers have by fortifying it to combat the biotic and abiotic stresses? Half the challenge is breeding and selecting good material, and the other half is ensuring delivery of tools to breeders and new planting materials to farmers.

So GCP focuses on developing new materials and new techniques and delivering these, and the appropriate breeding tools, technologies and services, to breeders.

Why is GCP’s work important, and what does it mean for food security?
People who are food-secure have access to adequate food at all times to maintain healthy active lives. There are two sides to making this happen – access and availability.

GCP is increasing the number of varieties and lines tolerant to the conditions farmers are facing. What we cannot do is put money in the hands of poor people. If we supply people with the means to produce sustainable and healthy crops, they will have the means to produce food for themselves, and a means of making an income.

GCP contributes to food security by providing breeders with integrated tools, techniques and services to speed up the selection cycle, be this by conventional or molecular breeding.

For you, what have been the major outcomes of GCP so far?
GCP has shown that it is possible to form very productive partnerships across CGIAR institutes and advanced research establishments and those countries that have less scientific capacity. I think it has been one of the most successful builders of research and development partnerships. GCP has also shown public researchers can work very well with the private sector. The public sector has the means to build a lot of capacity.

I think GCP has demonstrated that it is possible to establish molecular breeding programmes in those parts of the world that do not have well-developed scientific infrastructure.

Just a little bit of money – relatively speaking of course – clear vision, and good leadership, can go very far, and produce tremendous benefits and progress.

GCP has also identified the constraints that we have to work within – the challenge of phenotyping and restrictions on the movement of genetic material to other parts of the world. GCP has paid particular attention to intellectual property [IP] because the information and materials GCP produces must remain in the public domain. IP in the international arena within which the Programme operates must span potentially conflicting national legislation regimes. It is a very complex area.

‘Challenge’ is in GCP’s name. What are the major challenges that the Programme has so far overcome?
Quite a number and more could be on the horizon. GCP has overcome some of these challenges. They include the problem of poor-quality phenotyping. This has been addressed through a comprehensive capacity-building programme, including laboratory and field infrastructure, and the training of research support staff in the developing-country field sites where GCP projects are being implemented.

Another challenge was focusing the Programme. At the start, the Programme was spread too thin, spanning too many crops and partners, but these have been progressively narrowed down in Phase II.

This narrowing is no mean feat in the public sector. In the private sector, you start with, say, a hundred projects, then after six months you halve them. After a year, you are down to 10 projects and you put all your resources into making those 10 ‘winners’ work. In the public sector, you keep the entire hundred going for three years, then you look for funding to keep them all running for another cycle. It’s a different culture: the private sector is product-oriented, while some aspects of the public sector emphasise contributing to the growth of knowledge and information, and to building or maintaining relationships, without necessarily asking about their usefulness and benefits to society.

The Board’s focus is now on auditing the Programme and mapping a strategy to sustain its successful partnerships and systems, so that these can continue to deliver products and capacity to the developing world.”

What are the future challenges that the Programme must overcome to remain sustainable?
There are many GCP activities that can be integrated into the new CGIAR Research Programmes. However, there may be other activities such as capacity building and IP management which – at this point in time – appear somewhat less easy to integrate into the new CGIAR Research Programmes.

There is also a danger – not unique to GCP but with all aid-assisted programmes – that when the money ends, everything will disappear into the archives. We have to make sure that doesn’t happen in this instance.

The Board’s focus is now on auditing the Programme and mapping a strategy to sustain its successful partnerships and systems, so that these can continue to deliver products and capacity to the developing world.

What are some of the lessons learnt so far?
GCP was born at a time when we thought molecular biology could solve all our problems quickly and efficiently. What I think we are finding is that molecular tools –while extremely useful – cannot entirely replace understanding the agronomy and phenotypic activities. Molecular biology alone is not a panacea or silver bullet for crop breeding; but it is a valuable tool.

Then there is capacity building: molecular breeding is a tool that you can only use if you have the capacity. Many parts of the world will require a lot of capacity building and support to be able to use the tools. GCP and its Integrated Breeding Platform can make a modest contribution to meeting this need through the proof-of-concept GCP Research Initiatives for selected crops and countries and establishing communities of practice.

If tools and resources are not put to use, then we labour in vain.

What has been the most enjoyable aspect of your position with GCP?
Without a doubt, attending the General Research Meetings has been the most enjoyable, meeting scientists from a wide range of institutes, backgrounds and countries.

These scientists come together because they share the same interests and a common goal. There’s a lively buzz of conversation. It is good to hear about what they are doing, what their aspirations are, and to learn from the knowledge and posters they bring to the meeting.

You don’t have to be a cutting-edge scientist to listen to these people whose enthusiasm is palpable. They are passionate, have a strong sense of community, enjoy what they are doing, and are just as keen to share this knowledge and enthusiasm. It’s all highly infectious!

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