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Experts Urge Renewed Research To Meet Global Food Needs

Thanks to decades of very successful agricultural science, few Americans ever worry about tomorrow’s food, fuel, and fiber. But the world likely will need to double food production by 2050 to meet rising food demand, and past investments alone won’t be enough to meet that goal, said experts convened by AAAS.

Agricultural science suffers from a “culture of neglect,” said Roger Beachy, director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Because we do not feel the hunger that gnaws at nearly a billion of the world’s citizens and because the few American farmers that feed America and much of the world are often out of sight and out of mind of urbanites,” he said, “we have become complacent in the support and advocacy for agriculture research.”


Sharing the bounty. The U.S. National Institute of Food and Agriculture is leading new efforts to address U.S. and global food security issues.
Credit: Courtesy USDA Agricultural Research Service

Beachy delivered the inaugural AAAS Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Lecture at a packed AAAS auditorium on 15 June. The lecture, in memory of the prolific 19th century writer, artist, and chief of the Federal Entomological Service, was cosponsored by the Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Foundation in collaboration with the World Food Prize Foundation.

With a few exceptions, federal funding for agricultural research has been declining or stagnant for decades, Beachy said, threatening the health and wealth of rural communities and the nation’s long-term food security. Industry has picked up some of the slack, he said, but it has “focused on relatively short-term, high-impact outcomes that will support product lines.”

As head of the federal government’s primary funder of agricultural research, Beachy said he is determined not “to preside over a flat budget and a research paradigm more suited to the 19th century than the 21st century.”

Beachy said researchers must be prepared to collaborate widely and share practical results with farmers and consumers. He urged more team-oriented research that combines the talents of engineers, biochemists, crop and animal scientists, and others.

One pressing problem for agricultural scientists is global climate change. Speakers at a 16 June briefing on Capitol Hill, cosponsored by AAAS’s Center for Science, Technology and Congress, said it already has shifted growing seasons, threatened water sources, and exacerbated food shortages.

New investment is urgently needed to offset the impact in developing countries, said Gerald Nelson, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute. “If we don’t do anything,” he said, “projections suggest that unchecked climate change [will result in] a 20% increase in the number of malnourished children in 2050.”

Cynthia Rosenzweig, a senior research fellow at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said climate change is likely to threaten the world’s food supply, posing an international security risk. “There is the potential for strong shocks on any nation’s agricultural production,” she said at the briefi ng.

But in his lecture at AAAS, Beachy said transformative changes in biotechnology and other sciences “give us a fi ghting chance to create a world where the world’s hunger needs are met while preserving or even restoring our natural resource base.”

In a forum following Beachy’s talk, Ethiopian-born agronomist Gebisa Ejeta reminded the audience that “with all the breakthroughs that we have made in science around the world, we have not been able to give humanity that fundamental right... to enough food.”

Ejeta, 2009 winner of the World Food Prize, said he remains optimistic that scientists can “address issues of agriculture and natural resource management at home and abroad in a more holistic way than ever before.”