On February 1, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs launched a new blog series, A Food-Secure Future, to explore the challenges that threaten global food security and the opportunities that exist to overcome hunger and malnutrition once and for all. We will publish one post each week addressing these issues, and our series will culminate with the release of a new Council report at the Global Food Security Symposium 2017. Join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and tune in to the symposium live stream on March 30.
We know that agricultural development and food security are critical components of safe, productive, and healthy societies. But in today’s environment, new and evolving pressures complicate our ability to strengthen and expand the global food system.
We need to leverage our tremendous capacity for research to adapt to and mitigate these challenges. For decades the United States was the unmatched global leader in publicly-funded agricultural research and this helped propel the U.S. to its position as a global leader in agriculture and food. It surprised many, therefore, when the United States lost this top rank to China in 2009, especially as the challenges of climate change, for one, were intensifying. And today, there's far more at stake than bragging rights.
Mounting Environmental Pressures Test the Global Food System
A changing climate presents perhaps one of the greatest threats to the global food system today. In 2015 and 2016—the two hottest years on record—increasing temperatures and a uniquely intense El Niño weather pattern produced horrific drought across sub-Saharan Africa, leaving over 36 million people hungry as agricultural production failed. South and Southeast Asia suffered huge crop losses from drought and sea level rise—in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta (a global rice hub), over half a million acres of rice paddy had been destroyed by April 2016.
Rising temperatures in particular have wide-ranging impacts on agricultural production and food availability. Heat has already had a negative impact on global crop yields—wheat and maize production dropped 5.5 and 3.8 percent, respectively, between 1980 and 2008. Increasingly high temperatures cause heat stress in livestock, impacting their productivity, reproduction, and mortality rates. They’ve also allowed for the expansion of the range and duration of pest and disease outbreaks (which would typically be limited by cold winter temperatures). Just recently, an armyworm outbreak infested African maize production, with the potential to spread to Asia and the Mediterranean.
This list is hardly exhaustive, but it’s clear that these trends are delivering a significant toll to the global food system at a time when we need to be dramatically scaling-up food production to meet the demands of the growing global population. The changing climate and related resource pressures demand action and nimble innovation on behalf of producers, agricultural entrepreneurs, and the research community that supports them.
Meeting New Challenges with Responsive R&D
Farmers need affordable and accessible tools to respond to a changing environment. This is particularly true of small farmers in low- and middle-income countries, who typically operate without irrigation or other mechanisms to insulate themselves from weather volatility. Fortunately, researchers around the world have risen to meet these needs—producing technologies to help farmers adapt, and even mitigate, climate change. Solar irrigation technology, which uses solar energy to pull groundwater into a gravity-driven irrigation system, is helping farmers fight drought in Kenya by way of the US private sector. The Japanese National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology is producing miniature drones that can pollinate crops to offset the decline in bee populations. Scientists at the Aarhus University in Denmark are even engineering a “super grass” for cow feed that they hope will reduce bovine methane emissions.
In particular, the Feed the Future Innovation Labs—a partnership between the US government and the US land grant university system—have contributed a great deal to climate-smart agriculture. Several labs are devoted specifically to the development of heat- and drought-resilient crops, including chickpea, cowpea, millet, sorghum, beans, among others. At the University of California-Davis, the Innovation Lab for Genomics to Improve Poultry is working to address heat stress in chickens in East and West Africa. Others, including the Innovation Lab for Grain Legumes, are producing improved crop varieties that are resistant to disease and insect threats.
These technologies, as they become accessible to farmers and other food supply chain actors, go far in reducing the impacts of climate change and insulating agricultural production from shocks.
Leading the Charge on R&D Investment
However, not all agricultural R&D is created equal. Public investment in agricultural research is especially critical, particularly as it pertains to climate change. While the private sector is making significant contributions to agricultural R&D, most of these contributions are in the form of applied research—research in areas where there is immediate commercial potential, like food processing. It is the public sector that typically bears the brunt of basic research, which builds general knowledge necessary to address food-system wide challenges, like those related to climate change.
This is an area in which the United States can and should be leading, and in fact, the US public sector was once the largest performer of agricultural R&D in the world—contributing about 23 percent of global investment between 1990 and 2006. As of 2013, the United States was only contributing 13 percent of the global share of public R&D investment in agriculture.
We need to reverse this trend. The challenges facing the global food system are too great for fatigue in our investment, especially when US institutions are making such strong contributions to the field of climate-smart agriculture—particularly our land grant universities: not only in terms of their research output, but in terms of their capacity to build partnerships and develop local institutions abroad. Let’s double down on our commitment to innovation, and help ensure the resilience of global agriculture as we move forward.
Check out previous posts in the Food-Secure Future series: