Unrest in Tunisia, fuelled by rising food prices, heralds the danger of neglecting agricultural research
IRD, Vincent Simonneaux
Recent protests over food prices underline a key message from a new report about the potential dangers of neglecting agricultural research.
The ousting of Tunisia's president last week, and unrest in other nations such as Algeria and Sudan, has many causes — but rising food prices have been one of the underlying themes.
At one level, the problem of food scarcity can be told simply. There are seven billion of us on Earth, of whom probably two billion are underfed. Two billion more people are due to join the planet by 2050. Food security is not just a huge problem — some now argue it is the central problem facing humanity.
Hunger has a daunting array of causes. These include the scarcity of water and other agricultural inputs; soil erosion and the spread of salinity; and the tightening grip of climate change.
But one important part of what shapes the story of food and hunger is agricultural research — or the lack of it. The Green Revolution that began in the 1960s, which produced high-yield varieties of wheat allowing India, for example, to become a net exporter of grain, was a high point in the history of such research.
Many feel that a low point has now come, and that we are reaping the harvest of a tragic two decades of neglected agricultural science. This situation needs to be reversed.
Hunger's global reach
International reports on food security have been appearing in abundance over the past two months. , , , 
Most recent is a report, 'The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability', launched this week by the British government and written by its Foresight think tank, in consultation with researchers from 34 countries from across the developed and developing worlds.
The report provides a uniquely broad view of what causes food scarcity, identifying the factors that make up a complex political, social, economic and scientific web.
And it includes less obvious causes of hunger, such as the distressing fact that nearly a third of the food that is grown is wasted, for example by spoiling through poor storage.
It also conveys the sheer scale of the problem, demonstrating that food scarcity will eventually affect us all, even those of us whose bellies are full. Because, as we have seen in Tunisia and elsewhere, hunger leads to civil unrest and migration, and because farming, as it is currently practised, is destroying key resources and emits too much greenhouse gas.
Guilty by omission
In the sphere of research, many omissions have contributed to hunger. The report points out that existing innovations have not reached many of those who could benefit from them. In Africa, if these alone were implemented, productivity could rise as much as three-fold.
But three-fold, in only a few regions, is not enough.
New knowledge is essential. Yet for most countries, research into agriculture and fisheries is a low priority, says the report, and studies have now correlated the previous two-decade apathy with today's slowdown in productivity gains.
The report offers no support for 'knee-jerk' commentary seeking obvious scapegoats for hunger, such as the failure to adopt genetically modified crops, or the politics of food distribution. There is no single cause to rail against, and there is definitely no single solution.
And it makes clear that every approach must be harnessed in the quest for a new food system that "needs to change more radically in the coming decades than ever before, including during the Industrial and Green Revolutions".
Investing in research is one of the report's "key priorities". It points out that modellers agree that the science and technology yet to be done will be "one of the most critical drivers" of future food supply: "These challenges will require solutions at the limits of human ingenuity and at the forefront of scientific understanding," it says.
A priority for research
To achieve the required levels of research investment, says the report, more incentives must be provided for research into public goods that benefit low-income countries. New models of research funding are necessary. And research funders from the public, private and third sectors should sort out their differences and coordinate better.
The question is: can this report, and the others, propel hunger to the top of the political agenda? Calestous Juma, professor of international development at Harvard University, and author of a recent book on African food production , argues that the crucial step is getting heads of state to wantto solve the problem.
But achieving this degree of political will is hard, if only because hunger has the biggest impact on those who are in the weakest position to influence policy.
Agriculture, of course, competes for research funding with health, and other pressing problems, some of which have celebrated champions. But the need for research into food supplies supersedes every other need, since successfully producing and distributing food is a precondition for tackling other social problems.
Funders must reconsider their priorities. Researchers have a lot of catching up to do. And whatever its political justification, the unrest in Tunisia and elsewhere underlines the potential price of failure.
Foresight. The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability [8.92MB](The Government Office for Science, 2011)
 Worldwatch Institute. State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet (Worldwatch Institute, 2011)
 Cirad: Agrimonde. Scenarios and Challenges for Feeding the World in 2050 (Editions Quae, 2010)
Calestous Juma: The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa (Oxford University Press, 2010)
sk ( United States of America )
1 February 2011
Global warming and water scarcity have little to do with food production. Politics engineering and economics have everything to do with it. Global warming might change where various crops are grown but will do little to determine how much is grown. We do not have a shortage of water, we have a mislocation of water. If we can get enough water to the Sahara or the Gobi desert, we can grow all of the food necessary for the entire word. This is an engineering and economic problem. All of these problems are solvable at the right price. How much is the last loaf of bread in town worth?
BD ( Southern African Development Community | Botswana )
2 February 2011
I agree with the author. Agriculture feeds the world and if ag. research is neglected and funding for research is reduced, we will end up increasing the number of hungry and poor in future. It is time to react NOW.
Hans R Herren ( United States of America )
8 April 2011
Many thanks for this article. But I think that it should be noted that the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) reports "agriculture at a Crossroads", published in 2009 should have been mentioned as the "Mother" of all these reports.
As the co-Chair of this seminal report on the status of Agriculture, I would like to remind all readers that back in April 2008, at the height of the last food crisis, we held the Plenary session in Johannesburg, where 59 countries endorsed the key findings and options for action of the IAASTD report. The XX billion question now is: why was nothing done about it then?
To write new reports add little to what the IAASTD has been saying, except water down the message that business as usual is not an option and that we need a paradigm shift in agriculture. we said it then and I repeat it today: we need an urgent transition to sustainable agriculture, in the sense of agroecology, not in the already corrupted sense of the biotech and agrochemical industry.
For any reference check out the Agriculture at a Crossroads report from Island Press on www.agassessment.org.
Hans R Herren
RD ( The Carbon Trap | United States of America )
12 January 2012
Biofuel feedstock production is a major contributor to global food shortage, BUT missing is what growing fuel means to agriculture. The globe is facing PEAK PHOSPHORUS. That is our phosphate supplies are running out and without adequate fertilizer ingredients, food will become scarcer.
Another factor is the impoverishment of our soil by growing biofuel feedstock. Nutrients are not being replaced into the soil as they were when only the grain was removed. Now MOST of the biomass is being stripped away for cellulosic ethanol.
Think about this. Soil nutrients are finite. Stripping them away means less terrestrial nutrients and more shifted to oceanic nutrients.
Allan Savory ( Savory Institute & Africa Centre for Holistic Management | Zimbabwe )
13 January 2012
Hans Herren is correct “we need a paradigm shift in agriculture… an urgent transition .. in the sense of agroecology, not in the already corrupted sense of the biotech and agrochemical industry” Agriculture is the production of food and fibre from the world’s land and waters. In most countries up to 90 per cent of the land is under non-cropland agriculture. Today’s policies and practices, driven by years of reductionist research, agriculture are producing more eroding soil than food. Desertification is spreading & ocean life is being mined. No informed scientist can dispute the fact that agriculture is the most destructive practice on Earth - causing climate change possibly more than, fossil fuels. We depend entirely on agriculture without which we cannot even have a university, city, army, government.
As a scientist I know the value of research. However I have learned that policy and management have to deal with complexity. Neither policy nor management can ever be reductionist or driven by reductionist research. Allowing reductionist thinking to drive industrialized agriculture has brought us to this position of today. The knowledge to reverse desertification and develop regenerative, soil building, cropping and forestry practices is already openly available and it is being done in agro-forestry and other cropping practices where rainfall is adequate. Desertification is already being reversed using increased livestock numbers with holistic planned grazing – based on scientific information available for over sixty years. Some scientists have pointed this out for many years.
Humanity’s greatest hope lies in modern communication technology preventing control of information to the public, with more commonsense than controlling elites. Wisdom would suggest investing in adult education concerning the holistic formation of policy and of management in agriculture using available scientific knowledge rather than further academic information overload.
rk sarkar ( India )
15 January 2012
Food production only is not sufficient to meet the food demand. Best example is India. The worlds highest numbers of malnourished and hungry people stay here though sufficient food is available.
Jorge Laine ( Venezuela )
25 January 2012
Converting certain heavy fossil hydrocarbns (coal, heavy oil, tar sans, etc) into soil organic carbon to produce a terra-preta-nova is one alternative to cover both food and bioenergy productions; beside to also contributing to decrease atmospheric CO2.
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