August 1, 2014

Using Agricultural Research to Advance Productivity and Food Security

Next Generation Delegation 2014 Commentary Series

By Herbert Sserunkuma, MS candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Soybean Breeding program, Ugandan citizen, and 2014 Next Generation Delegate

Agricultural research for improved production practices and technologies, more resilient cultivars and varieties, safer agrochemicals, and a more robust understanding of plant genetics, diseases, pathogens and pests contributes greatly to fostering productivity around the world and can be one of the most important tools for eradicating global food insecurity and malnutrition.

Ironically, some of the world’s most food-insecure nations, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, South East Asia, and Latin America, are also those with more fertile soils, more rainfall, and in many cases longer growing seasons compared to food-secure nations. While this phenomenon highlights the relevancy of agricultural research, it also demonstrates that food security is more than a simple matter of local agricultural production, but rather a global issue that is affected by factors such weather and climate, public policy, political stability, infrastructure, culture, and access to technology, among many others.

In the field of plant breeding and genetics, which I study at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, we have the privilege of not only finding solutions for many of the problems that plague agricultural production, but also making these solutions available to farmers. These solutions and advancements are critical for improving agricultural production and productivity within food-insecure regions and countries and ultimately, for the world as a whole. 

In recent years, changes in climate have led to numerous production constraints, including droughts, pests, disease, and soil infertility. To address these changes, plant breeders are working to improve the varieties available while also developing new varieties that can withstand these prevailing conditions and protect future production.  As a result of research and experiments in plant-breeding, crop traits like drought tolerance, disease resistance, nitrogen efficient, early developing, hardy, and high-yielding are now commonplace. These traits offer solutions to the production constraints that farmers face with climate change, especially in food-insecure regions and nations.

Breeders have also made scientific advances in plant genetics, resulting in a substantial array of tools and techniques that can relieve many of the constraints on agricultural production. Many of these techniques, like Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, are controversial in some parts of the world.  While the disparities in the acceptance and utilization of GMOs is an entire discussion of its own, I would argue that such technologies merit better public understanding. If policymakers and legislators see the numerous advantages of this science within agriculture, farmers may better utilize their many benefits.  

For rural subsistence farmers who are most affected by food insecurity, increased production and productivity is only the first line of defense. Agricultural research on plant breeding and genetics, and the resulting innovations, can bolster the global fight for food security and, we hope, help eliminate malnutrition for good.


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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Fifty years ago Dr. Norman Borlaug recieved the Nobel Peace Prize for cutting the "Goridan knot" of population and food production. Now the planet faces another seemingly intractable problem: how to nourish the planet while preserving the planet.