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February 26th, 2019 / Professor Christopher J. Leaver, Emeritus Professor of Plant Science, University of Oxford; Founder member of B4FA

He who has bread may have troubles, 
He who lacks it has only one.’
Old Byzantine proverb

Since 1950 the world’s population has almost tripled to 7.7 billion and until recently the relative abundance of food has kept pace, with the poorest benefiting the most. Over the years the so-called Green Revolution, despite its flaws, has managed to avert many predicted famines with the number of those undernourished actually falling in relative and absolute terms from more than 1 billion to 821 million in 2017.

This dramatic increase is largely due to improvements in crop yields brought about by a number of innovations based on genetics and both conventional and other innovations in plant breeding and cultivation, These included F1-hybrid production of many global staple crops, improved plant protection, increased fertiliser use, mechanisation and advanced irrigation-techniques.

After the end of the Cold War period in the 1990s, the developed world became complacent, and in recent years, the year-on-year increases in yields of the major staple crops in developed countries have plateaued while yields in the developing countries have not improved significantly. This latter is due to many factors including climate change, less investment in agricultural research and development (R&D), subsidies for extensive agricultural systems, banning of important means of plant protection, etc. Coupled with this is the fact that around a third of the food produced globally is lost post harvest or wasted – equivalent to everything produced on around 30 per cent of the world’s agricultural area.

There have, however, been environmental costs associated with modern high input agriculture: for example, irrigation today accounts for about 70 per cent of global freshwater withdrawals and nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium fertilisers as well as pesticides have contaminated the ground water and are reducing biodiversity in many areas. Due to overuse of natural resources in agriculture, the world has lost significant amounts of topsoil due to erosion, desertification and salination. There has been a dramatic loss of around 33 per cent of our forests. In addition, we now face the challenges of climate change largely as a result of massive fossil-fuel usage, resulting in increased greenhouse gases emissions and thus atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, with more than 20 per cent of these emissions coming from agriculture. 

Recent Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates suggest that more than 820 million people are undernourished, while the World Bank estimates that a similar number are living in poverty on less than US$ 2 a day and generally they are deficient in at least one nutrient necessary for maintaining their health. 

About 30,000 people, half of them children under five, die every day due to hunger and undernutrition. Poverty, insurgency, conflict and climate change, particularly in rural areas, have also led to migration to cities and neighboring countries and, as a consequence, lead to an exacerbation of food insecurity. 

While the Green Revolution has achieved a great deal, its fathers never claimed that they would also be able to address political and economic challenges.

Feeding 10 billion
The major challenge for the future is to how feed a predicted world population of 9.7 billion in 2050, 2.5 billion of whom will be African (double today’s population of 1.25 billion}. Eighty per cent of them will live in developing countries with the majority living in towns, cities and mega-cities. Each hectare of agricultural land in 2050 will need to feed five people compared to just two in 1960.To feed nearly 10 billion people, food production per year will have to increase by at least 70 per cent on essentially the same area of land with less available water, unpredictable and more extreme climatic conditions and the transcontinental spread of virulent pests and disease. Meeting current needs, while improving the ability of future generations to meet theirs, will require sustainable intensification – growing more on the same or a smaller area by using land and other resources more efficiently.In addition, natural resources must be conserved by reversing deforestation and preserving ecosystem functions while minimising, adapting to and where possible, reversing the affects of climate change. To complement increases in food security, efforts are also needed to stabilise the global population, not least by creating economic opportunities and high-income growth rates together with education and the empowerment of women.

A challenge, but also an opportunity
Food security and the need for healthy staple food are no longer just the concerns of developing countries – they have become a global issue, not least in Europe which is a net food importer and other countries such as China which probably soon will be, as it needs to feed 20 per cent of the global population using just 7 per cent of the world’s farmlands.

Urbanisation, increasing incomes and dietary changes in China, India and elsewhere are increasing the consumption of meat, while in the developed world the overconsumption of sugary, salty and fatty foods has lead to an epidemic of obesity related, at least in part, to particular socioeconomic conditions. 

Agriculture is the biggest employer in Africa, a significant contributor to gross domestic product (GDP) and one of the most effective means of poverty reduction. Today, in sub-Saharan countries, about 70 per cent of households grow their own food as smallholder farmers often with low inputs. As a result, many are prone to soil-nutrient deficiency due to a lack of appropriate inputs and soil erosion. Moreover, smallholder-based agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa faces the challenges of uncertain rainfall, extensive drought and major crop losses due to infestation by pests and diseases. Matters are made worse by the average sub-Saharan farm size  shrinking due to a lack of structural change in agriculture and rural-to-urban migration, the result of a paucity of off-farm employment opportunities for young people. 

Furthermore, history suggests that with increasing urbanisation there will be a decrease in the number of those willing to work on the land unless the growing formal economy creates a growth-oriented domestic business of agriculture. That is likely to be driven by innovative entrepreneurs who attract investment because they are able to generate substantial returns and employment across the whole food value chain.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates around 60 per cent of the world’s remaining uncultivated arable land is in Africa. So, investment in African agriculture is an opportunity that will allow the continent to fully engage in, and benefit from, trading its produce globally.

To address these challenges, the scientific community, both internationally and in Africa, should engage in strengthening the capacity for R&D as well as working to enable talented and entrepreneurial African farmers to make use of that R&D to improve the quantity and quality of food production through tailor-made agricultural innovation.Agricultural technology can be a source of economic empowerment if it is not just developed elsewhere but combined with investment in local people with talent and initiative.

To complement their efforts, African governments should in the future be encouraged to fulfill their commitments to the 2003 Maputo Declaration, allocating “at least 10 per cent of national budgetary resources to agricultural and rural development policy implementation within five years”. Unfortunately, only a handful of nations have currently matched that resolution.

While there is certainly a role for local, organic/diverse agroecological, basic farming practices in many developing countries, these should complement rather than replace the fossil-fuel-driven industrialised farming on which we are still dependent on our overpopulated planet. If we want to entirely transform our petro-based agricultural industry into a bio-based one, this will have to involve the use of the modern tools of biotechnology. 

Ensuring food security and sustainability for all is so important we will have to evaluate, and where appropriate, use all available approaches for crop improvement. Time, after all, is not on our side.  

Developing capacities and building partnerships
Over the last 25 years, there has been a revolution in plant science and the skills of plant breeders have been enhanced by a range of new genomic technologies including marker-assisted plant breeding, genetic modification (GM) and recent breakthroughs in genome editing techniques.

These developments have depended on our increasingly detailed knowledge of the information content of plant genomes due to the rapid rise in high-throughput, inexpensive DNA sequencing. This information, linked to our increased understanding of how cells and organisms function at the molecular, biochemical and physiological level, has allowed us to select for, and modify, important agricultural and nutritional traits. The application of these technologies must not only be applied to improving food production in major commercial crop cultivation (maize, rice, soybean, wheat, etc.), which account for more than half of food calories consumed, but also adapted to improve so called, orphan crops. These staple foods, including banana, cassava, chickpea, cowpea, sweet potato, millet, sorghum and teff (http://africanorphancrops.org), are grown by smallholder farmers in many developing nations, but cannot easily be improved by conventional breeding and are multiplied by vegetative propagation and tissue culture. 

At present, multinational seed companies do not consider that they would receive a sufficient return on investment using modern methods of plant breeding to bring improved varieties of these orphan crops to market. The research and associated field trials take in of the order of 7–15 years and international regulatory approval can cost in excess of US$ 100 million for each new variety.

In Africa and elsewhere in the world there must be increased training and investment in all the scientific disciplines involved in crop improvement and the creation of new business models for orphan crops that encourage small-scale farmers to generate decent incomes from their surpluses. In this context, the aggregation problem of small-scale agricultural produce must be overcome, ensuring that surpluses are properly stored and comply with the quality and standards set in bulk and retail trade.

All this must go hand-in-hand with the creation of partnerships between public and private sector institutions to jointly create an enabling environment for the mobilisation of science and technology for development. The long-term aim should be the production, at a reasonable price in local and national markets, of higher yielding crops/plants adapted to local conditions, with greater resilience to pests, diseases and climate change. Furthermore, improving the nutritional composition of food crops, biofortification, can help address micronutrient deficiencies which affect human health and development such as through the creation of Vitamin A enhanced sweet potatoes, Golden rice and bananas. 

Coherent evidence-based regulation
As with many new technologies, people are keen to embrace the benefits but are concerned about potential risks. The manner of introduction of these new technologies, coupled to a lack of coherent political policy, has led to loss of community confidence which has been exploited by global pressure groups and activists. This has resulted in developing countries being denied access to the science with the potential to contribute to food security and nutritional improvement, and help alleviate poverty. It is worth noting that in the rich countries of Europe and the United States of America the average individual’s expenditure on food is around 10 per cent of income compared to those in Africa where it is at least 40 per cent and often much more.

We must evaluate all available technologies to address the challenges of achieving global food-security, subject to appropriate and realistic evidence-based biosafety regulations and, in combination with conventional approaches, deploy those which are most effective. This will include sustainable farming practices and appropriate use of agrochemical inputs as well as modern plant breeding, genetic modification, gene editing and other evolving technologies.

These technologies must not only be applied to improving food production of major world crops but also to improving orphan crops which can reduce poverty and improve food security and nutritional quality. Bear in mind that science and its application are not a quick fix and cannot be turned on and off like a tap. Yet, it is time to think about tailor-made and integrated solutions that take into account all available options. Excluding a particular technology for ideological reasons or mere political opportunism is irresponsible.

While science can provide technological solutions, for them to have maximum impact they have to be implemented in a responsible and fair way. This is not just the job of scientists but of politicians, policy makers, regulators, industry and funding organisations. Making sure everyone has enough to eat now and in the future, is more than ever about politics, socio-economics and communications as well as science. All available techniques and technologies should be evaluated and, subject to appropriate and realistic biosafety regulation, those that are most effective should be deployed. 

Stakeholders in resource poor countries concerned about food security and improved nutrition must become equal partners in evaluating the potential benefits of applying modern crop improvement strategies and ensuring food security in the future. Food should be judged by the products themselves and regulation based on the trait that has been introduced rather than on the process used to introduce that trait. 

Scientifically sound and standardised regulations across continents are a necessary part of ensuring global equity, enabling world trade to serve societies and providing local choice of which products to use. Unfortunately, activist groups from resource rich countries often distort or deny evidence-based strategies and planning to address the major challenges of achieving sufficient and sustainable world food production for all at affordable prices.

Time is short and doing nothing is not an option!