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Campaigners for food security must include science in their goals and in return scientists need to heed wider concerns around solutions.

2013 is set to be a big year for global development. At least this is the hope of civil society groups in the United Kingdom. Their positivity matters because the UK Prime Minister David Cameron is co-convener of the UN's High Level Panel on the Post 2015 Development Agenda, which is set to deliver its report by May.

The UK has also just taken on chairpersonship of G8, the world's eight largest economies, giving Cameron an opportunity to set at least some of the agenda for discussions in the next six months.

To take advantage of this window of global influence, the country's development aid community has launched the Joint Campaign on Food and Hunger, an ambitious grouping of 70 partner organisations. [1] But will science and technology (ST) be a part of it?

A place for science

The campaign is driven by some bracing statistics: although the world produces enough food to feed everyone, two million children die of malnutrition every year. Food insecurity has become a symbol of inequity and remains the most crippling consequence of poverty.

But while the campaign has a number of aims for policy change in areas such as investment, land, tax and transparency [1] there is little evidence that the campaign's members are aware of the value of ST in the fight against food insecurity.

History suggests that the potential for impact is huge. The Green Revolution of the 1970s, underpinned by scientific advances such as high-yielding cereal varieties, spurred the growth of many Latin American and Asian economies by generating surplus yields.

When Chris Whitty, chief scientific advisor to the UK Department for International Development, gave the annual Christmas lecture at the Foundation of Science and Technology in London last month (December 2012), he focused on outlining the value of science for Africa in the 21st century. [2]

Interestingly, he began by focusing on agriculture. According to Whitty there are three principal areas where science contributes to food security: increasing yields, increasing the nutritional value of food and reducing post-harvest loss.

Producing more

Increasing the productivity of agriculture is vital. This can be achieved by getting more from each crop, or more crops from each season, with lower risk of crop failure. This is perhaps best demonstrated by new rice strains.

Varieties of rice traditionally grown in Africa tend to yield a fifth of that of typical Asian varieties; but new strains being developed for Africa are delivering yields comparable with Asian species.

Some of these new strains are also ready for harvest up to 50 days earlier than traditional varieties, and are more resistant to drought and pests. [3]

Most of Africa has nitrogen-deficient soils and the land, as with many of the continent's vast resources, is unlikely to reach its potential productivity without some innovative thinking from science. In this case, redistributing land ownership is not enough for increasing productivity.

Losing less

Science has spearheaded efforts to improve the nutritional content of foods, known as bio-fortification. There are now scalable examples of vitamin A-enriched sweet potatoes and rice, and iron-enriched beans.

But there are concerns about whether this kind of fortification is a sustainable alternative to a varied diet when addressing nutritional needs. But these concerns don't discount the importance of investing in this area and bio-fortification is a clear research objective for the campaign.

ST also has a role to play in limiting the loss of food between harvesting and eating, by improving transportation and storage. Developments in delivery mechanisms in the health sector have contributed to an unprecedented drop in death rates across Africa in the past 40 years this should serve as inspiration to the campaign.

Society matters

While these examples show that food security campaigns would benefit from scientific input, conversely, scientists might benefit from the experience of such campaigners and from the Green Revolution.

These campaigns are focused on political solutions. Advocating for social and economic change is not nave despite the promise and progress we associate with ST, research alone cannot provide solutions.

As Whitty pointed out, a vaccine that is 90 per cent effective in clinical trials might be only 50 per cent effective in practice because of the socio-political reality of health systems, delivery practices and uptake in local contexts. There is no reason to assume this is less complicated in agriculture.

And as Lord Paul Boateng, the former British high commissioner to South Africa, said in a talk at the Natural Resources Institute in the UK in November, in Africa in particular, people's relationship to land is culturally determined. Scientists need to consider the political aspects of technical solutions, and to work with social analysis to support deployment of innovations.

Whitty has previously said that development science without economic analysis no matter how well intentioned is designed to fail.

Sustainability matters

The second lesson that a scientist might heed is the need to deliver food security within our planetary boundaries.

In describing the role of science in global development more generally, Whitty said science offers the capacity to develop new technologies and methods, while reducing costs and adapting older technologies.

He may not have been referring explicitly to the environmental costs of applying science to improving food productivity, but this is set to be an important issue.

In this context, sustainable development has foregrounded the role of ecological efficiency: the need to get the most out of our resources while exhausting them as little as possible.

This would have been less of a concern to scientists and technicians during the green revolution. But it is a destined to become the central concern of any efforts to boost agricultural productivity through ST in the decades to come.

Nick Ishmael Perkins
Director, SciDev.Net

Follow Nick on Twitter @Nick_Ishmael

References

[1] Joint Campaign on Food and Hunger (Bond, accessed 10 January 2013)

[2] Whitty, C. Science and development in Africa (FST, December 2012

[3] NERICA – Rice for Life (WARDA, 2001)

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