Bringing science and development together through news and analysis

Agriculture & Environment: Introduction

Food is a basic human need, and producing enough to feed the growing population of developing nations is one of the biggest challenges facing the modern world. The first of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is a pledge by the international community to halve the number of people in the world suffering from extreme hunger by the year 2015, a promise that puts agriculture at the heart of the development agenda.

Three out of four people in the developing world depend directly or indirectly on agriculture for their livelihood. Indeed, for most low-income countries, agriculture — which includes livestock, fisheries and forestry — is the most important sector of the economy, generating up to one half of gross domestic product, and often the main source of foreign currency.

One of the main ways in which agriculture can be made more productive is by harnessing science to increase productivity.

A range of agricultural research programmes are currently underway in Sub-Saharan Africa, the one part of the developing world where wide-scale food shortages are still found.

Agriculture must also be sustainable. In the past, many parts of the developing world have suffered from overgrazing and the loss of soil fertility through intensive food production. This has often led to the spread of deserts and to a growing interest in developing farming practices for use in arid environments.

More recently, an overzealous application of scientific techniques, such as chemical pesticides and herbicides, has brought its own set of problems, ranging from pollution of water resources to destruction of wildlife. As these problems have grown, so has a realisation that a basic understanding of the mechanisms that create and sustain biodiversity is essential if biodiversity — and the support that it provides to the world's food production — is to be preserved.

Introducing new agricultural techniques can be difficult. Controversy surrounds agricultural biotechnology, a broad term used to cover techniques that have emerged since the 1970s, making it possible to alter the characteristics of plants by modifying their genetic material.

Proponents of agricultural biotechnology point to the many benefits that agricultural technology, and in particular the development of genetically modified (GM) crops, could offer to the developing world. But efforts to promote the use of GM crops, both in developed and developing countries, remain mired in controversy.

The growth of agricultural technology has spawned another field of controversy — the concept of bioprospecting. Some foreign companies and governments are accused of 'biopiracy' — illegally obtaining samples of a developing country's indigenous plant material to improve its own products.

But the biggest challenge to agriculture in developing countries comes from the impact of climate change. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization says global warming is shrinking food supply and pushing up prices in many countries, with the result that people are already starting to go hungry.

If the international community wants to make a significant impact on hunger in the developing world, the challenges ahead are enormous. This topic gateway seeks to bring together news and features articles, combined with background analysis and opinion, that highlight the most important aspects of these challenges, presenting both the concrete scientific and technological achievements that will help feed to world's poor — and the complex policy choices that need to be made if this goal is to be achieved.

The merits of this information gateway lie entirely in its usefulness to our readers, so we welcome feedback on how to improve its content.