Op-Ed: The future of agriculture in a warming world

By Guest Author

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By Val Giddings and Matthew Stepp.  Feeding a hot and crowded planet is quickly becoming one of the principal challenges of our time. As the global population continues to grow and demands more food, climate change and extreme weather are putting new strains on food production. Meeting these challenges require game-changing agricultural innovation-the equivalent of many Green Revolutions-to deliver more productive, climate-resilient crops.

The world has been here before. Since Thomas Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, policymakers have debated the challenge of feeding a growing global population. Despite past successes, this problem is only getting more complex.

By 2050, global population is expected to exceed 9 billion and food demand will double. Meanwhile, climate change is already exerting a wide range of impacts on global agriculture, and it is only expected to get worse. According to reports by the United Nations and the World Bank, warmer temperatures will shift precipitation patterns, place additional stress on water resources, and alter the range and growing season of important staples such as wheat, rice, and corn. Droughts and heat waves will also become more common and severe, further disrupting agriculture in afflicted regions.

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Producing sufficient food in this rapidly changing world is a Herculean task and one that can only be achieved through historic increases in crop productivity and resilience.

In boosting crop productivity, farmers have two options: expand agricultural land or increase the productivity of existing crops. Expanding agricultural land is not a solution because most fertile regions are already in use and others provide important ecosystem services to the planet. For example, the Amazon has been referred to as “the lungs of the world” due to its importance in the carbon cycle. Farmers are therefore restricted to improving the productivity of crops on existing arable land to increase food production.

Unfortunately, things are moving in the wrong direction. Since the end of the Green Revolution, which delivered unprecedented productivity increases in the 1960s and 1970s, annual growth in agricultural production has slowed and now stands at nearly half of its revolutionary peak.

Crop resiliency must also increase to meet the stresses posed by climate change and to enhance yields in regions with more severe weather fluctuations. One key area that is currently being addressed by plant geneticists is increasing the water-use efficiency of crops. If we can enhance the ability of plants to absorb and metabolize water, crops will be less affected by drought and growing seasons may be extended in arid regions. Furthermore, scientists are attempting to develop targeted genes that could prevent certain diseases in plants or reduce insect infestation.

Unfortunately, next generation breakthroughs to address productivity and resilience require greater understanding of plant genomics and the ability to manipulate multiple genes within an organism. This requires additional R&D investment, specifically in the area of genetically modified foods, and greater international collaboration to further scientific knowledge and advance the development and deployment of new technologies.

Spurring this wave of innovation won't be easy, and it will take significant policy leadership.

First, world governments must spend far more on agricultural research and development. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, current global public investments in agricultural R&D total just over $20 billion per year. To put this into context, the US government alone spends over $30 billion per year on health R&D and over $80 billion on defence-related R&D. To create more productive and resilient crops, we must at least triple existing research investment and refocus public research programs on breakthrough leaps in crop technology.

Second, governments must stand up to the false propaganda perpetuated by some advocates and eliminate or prevent scientifically indefensible laws and regulations related to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Early in their history, agricultural biotechnology was made a battlefront in the culture wars over science, technology, and society. A vast body of experience has since accumulated, and with it an unmatched safety record. Today, the overwhelming scientific consensus-endorsed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the UK's Royal Society, and many others-is that GMO crops are as safe as other crops. Therefore, existing international regulatory systems designed specifically for GMOs must be reconsidered. Where regulations are not scientifically defensible, they must be reformed to reflect the best available science.

Finally, governments must strengthen international institutions to serve as renewed hubs for agricultural innovation. The research models that boosted crop productivity in the past are not enough to address today's agricultural challenges, and research institutions need to adapt accordingly. Fortunately, there are positive examples of next-generation agricultural research doing just that. For instance, Monsanto and the Gates Foundation have partnered to create a unique collaboration to address water and crop resource issues in Africa. In addition, we must strengthen global research consortiums, such as the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR), and create new mechanisms to enhance the dissemination of these technologies to the parts of the world where they will do the most good.

Feeding the world's population is one of the central challenges of this century and current technology is simply not sufficient. We must transform and reinvest in our international agricultural innovation ecosystem to produce more productive, resilient crops for a hungrier and warmer world. This is the one of our most powerful tools to meet the needs of today's and tomorrow's population.

Val Giddings is a Senior Fellow with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), Mathew Stepp is a Senior Policy Analyst with ITIF and Mark Caine is a Research Fellow with the London School of Economics. They are co-authors of the report: Feeding the Planet in a Warming World: Building Resilient Agriculture through Innovation.

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