April 6, 2011
It is now generally accepted that if an expected world population of 9+ billion by 2050 is to be adequately fed, world food production has to be massively increased. Estimates vary on how much, the actual figure depending on the extent that growth in the ‘emergent’ economies triggers a switch to a more animal product oriented diet. What is clear is that production will have to be increased without using more land, with less energy input and with less pressure on the environment.
Put crudely and to oversimplify: more has to be produced from less. This in fact is how, principally, the ever increasing world food production and the continuously falling real price of food was achieved in the last three decades of the last century. Massive increases in agricultural productivity – principally through continuous yield increases – were achieved in the United States, Europe and in developing countries. And the increase arose from the application of science, principally to plant breeding but also to husbandry methods.
The rate of increase in productivity has however fallen off – just as the demand is rapidly increasing from newly prosperous countries with inadequate food production resources of their own. The major reason for this is the declining allocation of cash to agricultural research by both governments and private companies.
The UK Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir John Beddington sees the decline in the agricultural research effort as a product of the fall in food prices over recent decades. He is not alone in this view. Other scientists and researchers at a joint European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC) and UK Government Office for Science forum this week agreed with the Beddington view.
The plenitude of food on world markets may well have lulled governments into a very false sense of security, encouraging their lack of enthusiasm for backing increased research. but this is not the only reason. While the returns to scientific innovation in agriculture may have declined, the costs of application have magnified, principally because of the mounting regulatory and political obstacles to practical application of new methods and materials. The application of genetic modification to plant and animal husbandry is an atypical example.
Much more insidious, is the anti-science attitude of too many legislators fostered by environmental obsessives whose ‘feelings’ play a much larger part in their actions than their brains. The reality is that the world needs a new Green Revolution – and soon. Unless a lot more is invested in agricultural research and the obstacles to its application reduced a lot more people are going to starve.Brian Gardner