Sustained investment in global agricultural research key to feeding 9 bln people sustainably

by Gebisa Ejeta | Rahim Kanani Media Group, Inc
Wednesday, 29 October 2014 12:03 GMT

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

Human civilisation is facing a complex and growing list of interrelated grand challenges in the 21st century.  The population of the world has grown at an alarming rate, with current population estimated at seven billion and projected to stabilise at around nine and one-half billion by 2050 and beyond.  The prevailing narrative is that we will need to increase food production by about 70% over current levels to feed a fast growing world population.   

While food insecurity is primarily a problem of the poor nations of the world, concerns about use of our land and natural resources and the prevailing policies around them have global implication.  We live in an increasing interconnected world.  We have learned that shortages of food that take place in the far fringes of the world can cause an increasing demand in agriculture for food, feed, and energy at home, resulting in a rare sense of food insecurity even in the western world.  

With threats from climate change, a looming global water crisis, concerns about the growing demand for and depletion of non-renewable energy sources, and the complexities of international trade, these emerging realities, collectively, pose environmental and social crises that make global food security, a truly daunting  and lasting  challenge.  But, we have faced such pressing challenges in the past and could overcome them with the power of science and technology, sound economic policies, and effective leadership.  

Solutions to the current global food security agenda also lie in science and technology and good governance and policy.  Yet, investments in agricultural research pay dividends only when sustained over time.  Science can frequently produce magical results over time, but very rarely overnight.  

One of Dr. Borlaug’s enduring legacies is his tireless effort in advocating for sustained agricultural research funding.  He rightly believed that long term funding builds strong foundation for research upon which needed results can be generated quickly when disaster strikes.  

His last major coupe was mobilising support for an accelerated funding and research for a new virulent race pathogen of wheat stem rust (ug-99) that surfaced in East Africa early this decade. I was with him at a Rockefeller Foundation meeting in Nairobi, when he arranged for a chartered flight to Western Kenya to see this pathogen for himself, and saw the resolve that he developed to fight it on the spot. 

Thanks to his efforts and the support of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, scientists at the Wheat and Maize Research Centre (CIMMYT) and at Cornell University, the University of Minnesota, and African national programs, today, ug-99 resistant wheat cultivars are ready to deploy. 

Sustained funding also allows basic science discoveries to be translated to products and innovations to solve problems on farm.  In my own research efforts in the development and deployment of drought and parasitic weed resistant sorghums for Africa, I received funding from several agencies including the Rockefeller Foundation and the US Department of Agriculture.  But, it was the uninterrupted modest funding from the US Agency for International Development (USAID), over a couple of decades, which provided the backbone, foundational support and proved indispensable.  

In spite of its remarkable successes and the transformative and positive global societal changes that agricultural science has brought about in human civilisation, it has not received sufficient and sustained funding that is concomitant to the challenges it continually faced, and the value it has added to society over the last 100 years.  Nevertheless, it has been shown repeatedly that when a case is made well, and the need and value to society of an agricultural research investment has been clearly articulated, society has responded responsibly to urgent and pressing calls for action.  

More recently, following the 2007-08 global food-price crisis, and the emergence of the global climate change agenda, the world was called to action to increase funding significantly for global agricultural research in general and to the 15 international agricultural research centers of the CGIAR (the largest publicly funded agricultural research consortium in the world).  I

 was a member of the founding board of the CGIAR Consortium that was established in 2010, which was charged to doubling of the Consortium budget.  At the time, many of us felt that there may not be sufficient good will around the world to achieve this goal, and particularly at an austere time caused by the unfolding of the serious global financial crisis. 

Thanks to the efforts of many men and women at the Consortium Board, the Fund Council, the 15 Centers, and several funding agencies, the CGIAR budget was raised from just under $500 million in the beginning of 2010 to over $1 Billion at the end of 2013 when I rolled off the Board.  More may be needed, but this to me was a remarkable commitment and response by society to the precarious positon global agriculture found itself in the wake of the 21st century. 

Thanks to these investments by several government and foundations, agricultural research is posed to deliver new and productive drought and heat tolerant maize, flood resistant rice, drought and parasitic weed resistant sorghums, and other key research derived technologies to small holder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia.  Through investments in science, we can also create an opportunity to slow down and reverse harmful events and trends by decisions that we can make today.

 We have learned from the past that investments in agricultural sciences in the 20th century have averted disasters and paid great dividends.  It is not impossible that we can produce enough food on this single planet to feed nine billion in an environmentally sustainable way through creative science, technology, and innovation.  

In sum, feeding 9 billion sustainably is a serious challenge to humanity.  But society can rise up to the challenge and meet it head-on, provided it acknowledges the fundamental importance of the global food security agenda, and generate the political will to galvanise and spread the great scientific capability it possesses to effectively address the issues of food, agriculture, and natural resource conservation and management responsibly.  

Gebisa Ejeta is a Distinguished Professor of Plant Breeding & Genetics and International Agriculture at Purdue University.

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

Rising to "the greatest challenge in human history" - Jose Graziano da Silva, FAO 

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

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

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