January 19, 2016 | By

Agriculture, Education, and the Next Green Revolution

Students in Uruguay use mathematics to plant potatoes with their teacher. REUTERS/Andres Stapff

Science & Our Food Commentary Series
There is much to celebrate when writing on the accomplishments of agriculture and science. Our era is one where farms all over the world are more productive than ever and the hungry—though there are still too many—have never been fewer. But as our population continues to grow towards nine billion by 2050, a serious question hangs over agriculture’s accomplishments: who will feed us in the future?
The climate is changing; soils are degrading; weeds, pests, and diseases are spreading; and the pool of wild flora plant breeders use to improve crops is dwindling. Without a breakthrough in our current agricultural production methods, an area the size of Canada will need to be added to those lands under plow today to produce enough food by 2050: land, frankly, we don’t have. 
The need for a breakthrough in agricultural science hasn’t been more pressing since the mid-20th century. Economists at that time predicted population growth would imminently outstrip the food supply; by the 1970s, they believed, famines would kill millions in India alone. But then, something extraordinary happened: a breakthrough in plant breeding which unleased the Green Revolution.
The Green Revolution, driven by the development of radically more productive varieties of cereal crops and the uptake of modern agricultural practices throughout much of Latin America and South and Southeast Asia, ensured that reality proved the doomsayers of the midcentury wrong. Cereal production more than doubled between 1961 and 1985; from the 1960s through the 1990s, as the population of Asia increased by 60 percent, grain prices fell, poverty was halved, and calories consumed per capita increased by nearly a third. A quantum leap forward was achieved, and mass hunger was averted. But that was then.
Today, population change and environmental degradation are undercutting the accomplishments of the Green Revolution. Over half of the population increase expected by 2050 will take place in Sub-Saharan Africa, with another 30 percent in South and Southeast Asia—the same places projected to suffer most from climate change. In the United States, California—and its $54 billion agricultural industry—is in the midst of its worst drought in 500 years. In 2014 alone, the state shed $2.2 billion and thousands of jobs from the agricultural sector due to the ongoing drought, all while water supplies, arable land, and soil integrity continued to decline. Meanwhile, modern agricultural science struggles to adequately address rapidly evolving threats. In 2015, 219 individual cases of bird flu among poultry throughout the Midwest resulted in the destruction of 48 million birds—30 million in Iowa alone—costing the American poultry industry $3.3 billion and doubling the price of eggs. All this, because the best means of viral control available to us today is to destroy an entire farm’s flock should a single sick bird be identified.
A new age of agricultural science on par with the Green Revolution may be necessary to solve these problems, but it won’t be easy. In the 1940s, the United States spent 40 percent of its annual research and development budget on agriculture; today, it spends 2 percent. Public sector research in agriculture has subsequently slowed to a crawl. The need to reboot investments in the field has drawn high-level attention: in January 2016, the White House launched an initiative to raise the profile of agriculture education and science, an initiative with urgency above-and-beyond the 2008 congressionally authorized Agriculture and Food Research Initiative which already provides competitive grants and much-need capital to agricultural research. In fiscal year 2014 the Initiative identified $1.1 billion in projects worth funding, however, it was only budgeted to award a total of $270 million grants—a 75 percent funding shortfall.
To solve the problems standing between us and a well-fed future, agricultural science will need to attract the best and brightest, but that simply won’t happen when that future presents career prospects only funded at 25 percent. According to a recent Purdue University/USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture study, although US universities produce 35,000 agricultural science students a year, that number is still 22,000 students short of the annual need for new scientists. The next generation may well be made of top quality students, and organizations across the agricultural spectrum—the Chicago Council on Global Affairs included—do much to invest in and promote those students and their budding careers. But the reality remains stark: our universities may have quality, but they don’t have quantity.
Every student in the class of 2026 who will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in the fields of science and technology is, today, a 6th grader interested in science. That cohort of 6th graders represents the limited pool that every STEM discipline must compete over for its own future—so, how will agriculture fair? If public perceptions of agricultural science improve; if funding for agricultural research grows; and if students can see themselves in a rewarding career feeding the future, then our second Green Revolution may well happen. But if funding—and career prospects—remains unpredictable, then the best and brightest may well chose other, more funded career paths—and who will feed us then?
Read additional posts in the Science & Our Food series:

Gene Editing: Moving Beyond GMO, December 1
Biofortification and Hidden Hunger, September 29
Safety and Oversight: How Genetically Engineered Crops are Regulated in the United States, September 1
Food Security, Climate Change, and Biotechnology: A Look at Bangladesh, July 28
The Environment and GMOs: Pesticides, Promises, and Squandered Possibilities, July 21
Golden Rice: Solution or Symbol?, July 14
Hawaiian Papayas and Florida Oranges: Combating Disease with Genetic Engineering, July 7
Public Perceptions and Understanding of Genetically Modified Foods and Labeling, June 23
Scientists and the Public Struggle to See Eye-To-Eye on Science and Technology, June 16


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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