Rising to "the greatest challenge in human history"

by José Graziano da Silva | Rahim Kanani Media Group, Inc
Monday, 20 October 2014 14:21 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

One imperative in achieving food security is to channel more public and private resources towards agricultural innovation

Different obstacles to food security need different solutions. Experience shows that a combination of actions is needed to reduce hunger and guarantee food security in the longer run. They include shifting towards more sustainable food systems, facilitating access and strengthening social protection.

Within this framework, to sustainably rise to “The Greatest Challenge in Human History,” the central theme of this year’s Borlaug Dialogue, one imperative is to channel more public and private resources to supporting agricultural innovation and knowledge systems that respond to different geographic and climatic conditions and that make them accessible to different producers. This is especially true for small-scale and family farmers who often do not benefit from the innovation, either because they are out of their reach or because they do not respond to their needs and realities.

According to current projections, feeding the expected world population of over 9 billion in the year 2050 will require us to increase food output by 60%, mostly using land already under cultivation.

Eradicating hunger, food security and malnutrition in a world where water, soil and many other natural inputs all face resource constraints puts a premium on knowledge. Science and innovation will be judged on their ability to do more with less, which means we need to consider the way we frame and conduct research, covering the full range from farm to fork.

Researchers must show what the Nobel Peace Prize judges called Norman Borlaug’s “pragmatic eclecticism.”

Doctor Borlaug, who is famous for developing highly-yielding wheat varieties that assured food production matched surging global populations, grew up on a rural Iowa farm with mixed crops and livestock.

Borlaug’s legacy shows research has been absolutely critical in increasing food supply. All studies demonstrate that agricultural R&D has had a significant impact on productivity, growth and poverty alleviation. The Green Revolution is credited to have saved hundreds of millions of people in Southeast Asia. We need to expand these investments to ensure that continues.

Borlaug’s legacy also shows the importance of being innovative in responding to the problem at hand. We need the same spirit of innovation that drove the Green Revolution, adapted to the reality and the constraints the world faces today.

Today we know that input intensive production methods cannot be indefinitely replicated. Given climate change, resource depletion and our renewed focus on the importance of nutrition, we need to be as sustainable as we are productive, generating more resilient food systems that produce more with less impact on the environment.

We will require more than one agricultural knowledge system to respond to “The Greatest Challenge in Human History.”

Finding ways to help large-scale commercial farming lower its high-level use of chemical and energy inputs, as well as mitigating the ecosystem costs of mono-crop agriculture, is a clear priority.

Increasing global food output will require devising sustainable farming techniques, solving food-storage problems, enforcing judicious water use, at times integrating agricultural subsectors such as fisheries and forestry, and in some cases trying out existing production methods in new places, such as taking Argentina’s no-till practices to Africa.

Meanwhile, the research needs of the world’s more than 500 million family farms, who are our main agents of actual change, vary enormously from place to place. A good rule of thumb is it should be demand-driven, relevant for farmers and local communities, and include them as protagonists in the process. In many situations, the value of research may lie as much in its distribution as its scientific content.


Family farmers account for by far the lion’s share of global investment in agriculture, and to leverage their efforts we must hone our own. Governments must work to create an enabling environment, one in which international organizations, regional agencies, civil-society groups, the private sector and research institutions all participate.

Enabling includes actions to assure market access, as evidence clearly shows this greatly accelerates the rate at which family farmers adopt innovative ideas and practices, and the use of social protection programs to make sure that poor people have access to the food they need. Both areas warrant more research of their own and have much to contribute to creating more resilient food systems.

Indeed, the research process must itself forge better ways to embrace women and youth, recognize indigenous knowledge and cultural norms, and promote, develop and preserve local agricultural knowledge systems. These are all potential assets, not obstacles; they are signals, not noise.

No single body or single approach has the authority or capacity to tackle the challenges of urbanization, climate change and environmental degradation, none of which tend to respect geographic or even disciplinary borders. We need to share and learn from each other.

Farmer Field Schools, in which local farmers study problems together in the field and experiment with solutions, may warrant more institutional support. Participants in FAO’s field school program in East Africa had 61% higher incomes than non-participants, and the method appeared particularly effective in engaging women and less literate people.

Public and private sector institutions must work to bolster linkages and cooperation between research organizations, extension systems and rural communities so that researchers’ work can better and more effectively help farmers, including those in remote settings.

The knowledge systems we need vary from place to place, case to case and over time. The research community has a special duty to ensure family farmers can carry out their big role in the process of driving innovation geared to reducing food loss and waste, increasing awareness of ecosystem services and of course contributing to sustainable food security and rural development.

José Graziano da Silva has worked on food security, rural development, and agriculture issues for over 30 years, most notably as the architect of Brazil’s Zero Hunger (Fome Zero) program and now as the Director-General of FAO.

As the 2014 Borlaug Dialogue takes place October 15-17 in Des Moines, Iowa, the World Food Prize Foundation and CGIAR Fund are co-hosting an online, high-level op-ed series titled The Greatest Challenge in Human History: Sustainably Feeding 9 Billion People By 2050. This will highlight how agricultural research and development are not only tied to food security and nutrition, but that they are also central to achieving many of the forthcoming UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Read more: 

How can we sustainably feed 9 billion people by 2050? - Kenneth Quinn, World Food Prize Foundation and Jonathan Wadsworth, CGIAR

The future of food and farming depends on climate action today - Jose Graziano da Silva, FAO, Kanayo F. Nwanze, International Fund for Agricultural Development and Ertharin Cousin, WFP

Progressing crop research to impact at scale -  Marco Ferroni, Syngenta For Sustainable Agriculture

The face of hunger is not partisan - Rajiv Shah, USAID

Delivering on Norman Borlaug’s call to action - Andrew Youn, One Acre Fund and Tony Kalm, CGIAR Fund

Elevating civil society from advisers to partners for a food secure world  - Tony Hall,  Alliance to End Hunger

New wheat breeds can help avert food security disaster - Sanjaya Rajaram, 2014 World Food Prize Laureate

Achieving zero hunger with help from smallholder farmers - Ertharin Cousin, WFP 

Tending the future - Pamela Anderson, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Sustained investment in global agricultural research key to feeding 9 bln people sustainably - Gebisa Ejeta, Purdue University

Africa will feed 9 billion by 2050 - Pedro A. Sanchez, Earth Institute, Columbia University