Modern famines are the result of poor policy decisions, rather than insufficiently developed agricultural technology, said Robert Zeigler, an expert in rice production and global food security, during a recent lecture.
Widespread production of crops that can withstand the changes in conditions associated with climate change will depend on society’s and, in turn, policymakers’ embrace of tools already available to breeders, such as CRISPR gene editing, he said.
Zeigler was the featured speaker at the 2019 AAAS Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Lecture, hosted last month by the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues at the organization’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. Each year since 2010, AAAS has collaborated with the Charles Valentine Riley Memorial Foundation and the World Food Prize Foundation to host the event, inviting speakers to discuss environmental and societal challenges through the lens of agricultural innovation.
Charles Valentine Riley, the lecture’s namesake, was a prolific 19th-century entomologist and pioneer in biological pest control. After immigrating to the United States from England at age 17, Riley eventually became the chief entomologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1878, the first curator of insects for the Smithsonian Institution in 1885 and the vice president for AAAS’s biology section in 1888.
“Charles Valentine Riley had a vision, that hopefully will only increasingly play out over time, of using modern science to advance agriculture,” said AAAS interim CEO Alan Leshner at the 10th-anniversary lecture on September 17. “With his vision in mind, this lecture is an important opportunity to examine the critical role that science plays in advancing agriculture, conserving natural resources and ensuring food security.”
In his talk, Zeigler, a plant pathologist, drew from more than 35 years spent researching cereal production in the developing world, a career that began with two years of Peace Corps service in Zaire in the early 1970s. From 2005 to 2016, Zeigler was director general of the International Rice Research Institute, a research and training nonprofit based in the Philippines, with offices in 17 countries. His book, “Sustaining Global Food Security: The Nexus of Science and Technology,” was published this month by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Australia’s national science agency, and Oxford University Press.
To highlight policy’s interplay with science and technology and the results this interaction has on food security, Zeigler focused on famines, which he argued have been avoidable since the First Industrial Revolution, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The Irish Potato Famine, for instance, began in 1845 when the introduction of a late blight disease from Latin America devastated the Irish potato crop. What could have been a nuisance became a catastrophe, though, as a result of the United Kingdom’s Corn Laws, protectionist tariffs that favored domestically grown grain, keeping profits artificially high for British landlords and preventing food imports, even in times of need. By 1852, 1 million people had died of starvation and another million had left Ireland for the U.S.
“It was not just the disease or the crop loss that caused the famine,” Zeigler said. “It was the way their policymakers addressed it.”
Just as policy decisions can exacerbate famines, however, they also have the power to prevent them, Zeigler said.
In the 1960s, rice, the dietary staple of half of the world’s population and three-quarters of the world’s poor, yielded about 1.5 tons per hectare. Realizing that this level of production was insufficient, diplomats and politicians took action, establishing international institutions to address food security, such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Bank and IRRI, Zeigler’s former organization. By the 1970s, scientists had used selective breeding to create modern dwarf varieties of rice. Today, after further improvements to the plant’s architecture and individual countries’ critical investments in irrigation infrastructure, fertilizer subsidies, and education, average global yields are more than 4 tons per hectare.
“There is general agreement among the economists of the world that the Asian economic miracle was built on a foundation of abundant and affordable rice supplies,” Zeigler said. “And there’s no doubt that the creation of these rice varieties and their widespread adoption basically saved millions of people from starvation.”
Past policy failures and successes hold implications for the future, Zeigler said, as global food security in the coming decades will depend on the development of crops bred to withstand climate change and associated changes in agricultural conditions, such as rainfall, temperature and soil salinity. Such innovation, he added, must draw from the genetic diversity of crops and their wild relatives using the latest gene-editing tools.
International policy decisions, however, despite being well intentioned, have imperiled the field’s progress, Zeigler argued. The 1993 Convention on Biological Diversity, signed by 196 nations, established biodiversity as a sovereign resource, constraining the exchange of genetic resources across borders. In July 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled that plants created using CRISPR, a process that allows scientists to edit the genome without introducing any foreign DNA, fall under the same stringent regulations as genetically modified crops that contain genetic material from more than one species.
In addition to confronting climate change, CRISPR-edited crops could be tailored to address vitamin and mineral deficiencies, Zeigler said. A lack of vitamin A, for example, widespread in rice-growing countries, can increase susceptibility to measles and cause night blindness. Whether changes will come to public opinion and international law regarding crops designed to tackle such issues remains to be seen.
“Policies and technologies can be mutually reinforcing,” Zeigler said. “Or not, when they get out of synch.”