Food security as a strategic priority for commissioning and use of evidence
In the last of his series of articles for SD Scene, Professor Robert Watson, Chief Scientific Advisor for Defra, explains why food security is a strategic priority for the commissioning and use of evidence.
Over the past century agricultural science and new technologies have boosted production with enormous gains in yields and reductions in the price of food, but the benefits have been unevenly distributed and environmental degradation has resulted in many parts of the world.
Agricultural productivity globally has increased by almost a factor of 3 in the last 50 years, but one billion people still go to bed hungry every night and hunger has increased in several parts of the world, in particular in Sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, this increase in agricultural production has been accompanied by an increase in GHG emissions, loss of biodiversity, and land and water degradation. The underlying causes of hunger are more associated with poverty, institutional weaknesses and policy environments than an inability to produce enough food.
In the coming decades we need to double food availability in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner in order to alleviate hunger and under-nutrition. In addition, sustained growth in the agricultural sector is needed to reduce poverty, enhance rural livelihoods and stimulate economic growth in developing countries. While we could feed the world today with current technologies, further advances in agricultural science and technology are needed to meet future challenges. Agriculture can no longer be thought of as production alone, but the inescapable interconnectedness of agriculture’s different economic, social and environmental roles and functions must be explicitly recognised, i.e., agriculture is multifunctional. Without an appropriate enabling framework (i.e., rural development, access to markets, improved extension services, empowerment of women and trade reform), the potential of advances in agricultural science and technology will not be realised.
This increased food availability will have to be achieved at a time of less labor due to disease and rural to urban migration; less water due to increased competition from other sectors; less arable land due to competition from energy crops; high energy prices; distorted trade policies, e.g., OECD production subsidies; land policy conflicts; loss of biodiversity at the genetic, species and ecosystem level; increasing levels of air and water pollution; and human-induced climate change
Addressing the challenge of food security will require embedding economic, environmental and social sustainability into agricultural policies, practices and technologies; addressing today’s hunger problems with appropriate use of current technologies; advancing biotechnologies, which may be needed to address future demands for increased productivity and emerging issues such as climate change and new plant and animal pests, while recognizing that the risks and benefits must be fully understood; providing payments to the farmer for maintaining and enhancing ecosystem services; reforming international trade; and increasing public and private sector investment in research and development, extension services, and weather and market information.
Many of the technologies and practices we need to meet the challenge of sustainable agriculture already exist. For instance, we know how to manage soil and water more effectively to increase water retention and decrease erosion; we already have access to microbiological techniques to suppress diseases in soils and conventional biotechnology (plant breeding) can help us produce improved crop varieties. But climate change and new and emerging animal diseases are throwing up problems that we haven’t considered before and which will need advances in agricultural knowledge, science and technology to address.
Currently the most contentious issue in agricultural science is the use of recombinant DNA techniques to produce transgenic products. While GM technologies are being increasingly used in some parts of the world, in others there is strong public and political opposition.
Opening national agricultural markets to international competition can offer economic benefits, but can lead to long term negative effects on poverty alleviation, food security and the environment without basic national institutions and infrastructure being in place. Therefore, trade policy reform that provides a more equitable global trading system can help make small-scale farmers profitable and enhance the ability of developing countries to achieve food security while ensuring environmental sustainability. Developing countries would also benefit from the removal of barriers for products in which they have a competitive advantage by a reduction of escalating tariffs for processed commodities in both developed and developing countries.
The primary agricultural evidence challenge is to increase productivity in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner. This will require addressing water deficit problems, e.g., through improved drought tolerant crops, irrigation technologies, etc; improving the temperature tolerance of crops; combating new or emerging agricultural pests or diseases; addressing soil fertility, salinzation of soils and improved nutrient cycling; reducing external and energy-intensive inputs; reducing GHG emissions while maintaining productivity; improving the nutritional quality of food; reducing waste and post harvest losses; and improving food safety.
Meeting the goal of affordable nutritious food for all, in an environmentally sustainable manner is achievable. The future is not pre-ordained, but is an our collective hands. While we can build upon our successes, we must also recognise that an extrapolation of business-as-usual will not suffice. Instead, we need to be bold enough to rethink agriculture. Most importantly, if we are to help today’s and tomorrow’s poor and disadvantaged, we need to acknowledge that the time to act is now.
In previously published articles Professor Watson considered climate change and biodiversity as strategic priorites. His paper on the three linked priorities is available to download: Strategic priorities for commissioning and use of evidence (pdf).
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