Agricultural Research Capacity and Extension Linkages in Myanmar: Assessment and RecommendationsDOWNLOAD FILE
May 9, 2019 - Author: Duncan Boughton and Su Su Win
Duncan Boughton and Su Su Win, 2019. Agricultural Research Capacity and Extension Linkages in Myanmar: Assessment and Recommendations. Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Security Policy Research Paper 131. East Lansing, Michigan State University
Agriculture, forestry and fishing accounted for 26.2% of Myanmar’s $69.3 billion Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2017 (World Bank, 2018). An improvement of just one percentage point in Myanmar’s agriculture sector growth rate would add more than $180 million per year to the economy, amounting to almost an additional $2 billion over a decade. Furthermore, a high proportion of these gains will accrue to low income rural households and urban consumers, with important multiplier effects for the rural economy. Yet, Myanmar has one of the smallest, most underfunded, agricultural research systems in Southeast Asia. According to the World Bank’s Agricultural Public Expenditure Review, Myanmar invested the equivalent of only 0.04 % of agricultural GDP in agricultural research. Other Asian countries invest 0.60 % of their agricultural GDP in research, more than ten times as much as Myanmar (World Bank 2017). Countries with advanced research systems spend 40 times as much as Myanmar when measured as a share of agriculture’s contribution to their economies. An example of the consequences of underinvestment in agricultural research over a prolonged period is that, even for rice, some of Myanmar’s most widely grown varieties are over 40 years old.
The justification for high rates of investment in agricultural research is the strong historical evidence of its contribution to high rates of agricultural growth, poverty reduction and improved nutrition outcomes. An extensive review of returns to research and extension found average annual rates of return in excess of 60% (Alston et al., 2000). The returns to investment in Myanmar could be even higher than average given the country’s agricultural potential. Failure to address the current gaps in research capacity, organization and funding will have negative consequences. Myanmar farmers and agribusinesses will face lower incomes and higher climate-related losses, Myanmar consumers will pay more for their food, while a higher share will be imported from the international market. The high cost of the nutrient-rich components of a healthy diet (e.g., meat, fish, eggs, fruits and vegetables) relative to consumer purchasing power is already a major constraint to improved nutrition outcomes in Myanmar, especially in hilly regions and urban areas (Mather and Mahrt, 2019).
Myanmar has critical gaps in research capacity. Myanmar has well-trained and highly dedicated agricultural scientists, but they are very few in number. Despite enormous growth potential in aquaculture and livestock production, for example, Myanmar has very limited research capacity for these sectors beyond laboratory research conducted by universities or government departments. Even the main research organization for crop production, Department of Agricultural Research (DAR), has only 100 graduate staff (25 PhD level and 75 MSc level). While crop variety improvement is the largest component of DAR activities, there are very few crop breeders on staff. Modern breeding approaches require strong support from biotechnology, and Myanmar’s biotechnology laboratories have very limited staff and equipment. Besides crop breeding and biotechnology, research capacity is lacking in aquaculture and fisheries, livestock production, forage production, cropping systems agronomy, soil and water management, pest and disease management, agricultural mechanization and socio-economic analysis.
Myanmar’s agricultural research capacity is highly fragmented. There are more personnel with PhD training in the Department of Agriculture (DOA) than DAR. For example, the DOA’s Plant Biotechnology Centre outside Yangon has 12 PhDs compared with only 2 PhDs in DAR’s v Biotechnology Research section in Yezin. Consequently, the DAR staff responsible for crop improvement programs do not have access to the necessary biotechnology capacity to support efficient breeding programs. Furthermore, many PhD level staff in DOA are not undertaking research. Instead they are assigned to management tasks or as counterparts to international projects because of the English language skills acquired through advanced degree training. The current organization of DAR’s research programs does not facilitate a problem solving approach. Research programs are developed at the administrative sub-unit level on the basis of individual crops or disciplines, making it difficult to design and implement multi-disciplinary approaches to problems farmers encounter in the country’s diverse production systems. DAR’s 25 research stations have specific crop mandates that are not always well matched to the predominant cropping systems in their location. A large part of the land area and budget of DAR research stations is devoted to seed multiplication rather than to research, often multiplying seed of outdated varieties rather than new ones. Linkages between research and extension at the local level are very weak, limited to extension participation at research station field days. Most research stations lack graduate leadership as 75% of DAR’s MSc level staff and 90% of PhD level staff are located at the Head Quarter (HQ) station in Yezin.
The lack of incentives for researchers discourages lifetime productivity. Myanmar’s public sector salaries are extremely low. An individual with a Bachelor’s degree in agriculture can earn more in an entry-level position with a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO)/International NonGovernmental Organization (INGO) or donor project than as a senior researcher with a PhD in government service. More than 85% of Myanmar’s scientists are women because men do not think they can support a family if they stay in research. Promotion to higher grades is a very slow process, typically through transfer to a position with administrative responsibilities. There is no dedicated research career ladder for researchers to achieve the equivalent grade of a senior administrator. Retention of young scientists can be difficult if they return from advanced training overseas with skills they cannot apply on their return due to lack of facilities, budget and continued mentoring.
The lack of an overall strategy for the development of Myanmar’s agricultural research and extension system results in the inefficient use of international partnerships. Large, well-meaning, bilateral initiatives focused on a specific crop or research area, often accompanied by significant investment in new buildings, run the risk of undermining existing programs if scarce qualified personnel have to be transferred to implement the new high-profile initiatives. One solution to this is to require international projects to include funding for Myanmar researchers to undergo advanced degree training, and to provide temporary resident qualified international staff for the period of training as well as to mentor newly returned graduates.
The new Agricultural Development Strategy (ADS) and investment plan for MOALI, launched on June 7, 2018, provides a timely opportunity to overcome the constraints and system weaknesses identified above. As part of the Productivity Pillar, the ADS proposes a unified National Agricultural Research and Extension System (NARES). The NARES should include research and extension activities implemented by the private sector, NGOs/INGOs, universities and CGIAR centers, as well as MOALI. The Regional Research Centre (RRC) concept, currently being piloted in Sagaing Region, provides a decentralized model for MOALI research and extension staff to work together with farmers to identify problems and test solutions. The RRC model should vi be expanded to include participation by private sector stakeholders (e.g., traders, processors, input suppliers) and NGOs.
The current underinvestment and lack of research capacity is a significant threat to Myanmar’s agricultural productivity and the future wellbeing of Myanmar citizens, especially in rural areas. The following actions can be taken immediately by MOALI to improve public sector research effectiveness in ways that are consistent with the development of the NARES:
1) Establish an agricultural research and extension strategy leadership team comprised of Director Generals of all MOALI units with research mandates and activities. Initial tasks will include:
- Prepare an inventory of human resources with advanced research degree training across MOALI and their current functions;
- Re-assign staff with recently completed advanced research degrees who are currently performing administrative or project management functions to research activities;
- Develop a consolidated advanced research degree training program and budget;
- Develop a performance-based research career progression with financial and non-financial incentives to retain trained capacity in research functions;
- Ensure that the Technical Seed Committee and National Seed Committee meet regularly to evaluate submissions for the release of improved varieties;
- . Explore potential for expanded licensing of publicly owned hybrids and Open Pollinated Variety (OPV)/Self-Pollinated Varieties (SPV) to the private seed sector to accelerate commercialization and access by farmers.
- Undertake a preliminary analysis of the potential increase in value of agricultural output from research on majors crops, livestock, aquaculture and farming systems to guide research investment allocation;
- Publish a single MOALI five year agricultural research and extension plan and budget with specific targets for improved technology release/dissemination and adoption;
- Publish an annual report on agricultural science accomplishments and impact at farm level.
2) Organize research planning, budgeting and Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) according to three main programs: 1) Genetic Improvement; 2) Production Systems Management and 3) Farming Systems Development. The purpose of the Genetic Improvement program is to identify or develop improved varieties or breeds adapted to Myanmar’s markets and agroecologies. The purpose of the Production Systems Management Program is to identify or develop more efficient production and post-harvest management practices for integrated cropping systems, livestock and aquaculture. The purpose of the Farming Systems program is to engage farmers and agribusinesses working on all major farming systems in the country in the identification of problems, testing of improved technologies together with farmers and agribusinesses, and develop plans for scale-up with extension services. Each of the three main programs would have sub-programs that collaborate on shared objectives with efficient use of shared resources (e.g., biotechnology);
3) Undertake expert technical reviews for each major research program and sub-program to identify priority genetic or production management improvements, as well as potential pest and disease threats to be countered, for each of Myanmar’s major production systems over the next five years;
4) Accelerate progress in crop breeding by forming a critical mass of researchers and facilities in breeding and biotechnology working together across Departments on priority crops or species in combination with international advanced research institutes (one MOALI department should be given lead responsibility for managing joint programs for each crop or species);
5) Finalize a biotechnology policy, law and safety framework to maximize the potential for the safe acquisition and deployment of biotechnology innovations that can benefit farmers and consumers;
6) Accelerate and expand geographical coverage for the testing and dissemination of improved varieties/species and/or management practices at farm level through collaboration between research and extension resources of MOALI at regional level (Regional Research Centre model) and focusing seed multiplication effort on early generation multiplication of prelease materials;
7) Strengthen Regional Research Centre research and extension activities through multidisciplinary teams, including socio-economists to help monitor the impact of adoption of improved genetic materials and techniques;
8) Engage local private sector operators, such as seed companies, agricultural traders and processors, in the identification and promotion of promising genetic materials and techniques;
9) Accelerate variety and product registration and release procedures for public and private sector technology providers; and
10) Privatize and ensure independent quality control of non-research functions such as tissue culture, non-early generation seed multiplication, breeding stock production, or production of soil health materials.