But where did all the research go?
Author | Julian Cribb
Farmers are going to have to accomplish a miracle using less science and technology.
On top of the scarcities of land, water, energy and nutrients, the world’s farmers are driving into a huge technology pothole.
This is the result of decisions by national and regional governments worldwide, by aid donors and academic institutions, to slash resources for agricultural research and extension over four decades.
This has happened in the US, Germany, Britain, France, Japan, Australia and China. In the year 2000 the rich countries spent just 1.8 cents in every research dollar on agricultural research, so unimportant has the issue of sustaining food production become to them.
Between 1980 and 2006 the proportion of the world’s aid budget devoted to raising food output fell from 17 to just 3 per cent.
The cost is high. In local research stations, in national agriculture departments, in universities, colleges, research agencies and in the international agricultural research enterprise, support has been cut or allowed to erode, hundreds of labs and field stations have been shut, and thousands of vital research programs terminated.
Of the scientists who fed the world in the past 40 years most have quit – in anger, sorrow, or disappointment – have been fired, or have retired.
The dilapidation in the enterprise that feeds the Earth has disheartened a generation of young would-be agricultural scientists, especially in developed countries where many universities and colleges of agriculture cannot find enough students to fill the places they offer. Disciplines vital to reinventing agriculture, like soil science, are languishing.
Global funding for agricultural research, public and private, is estimated to total around $40 billion.
There is a stark contrast with the $1500 billion the world now spends on weapons.
There has been almost no real increase in funding of the international ag science effort since the 1970s – although the human population has doubled.
The effects of all this are evident in the declining growth in world crop yields. The gains are now below 1 per cent a year – less than half what is needed to keep us fed.
Generally speaking, it takes around 20 years for a piece of research to be completed, turned into technology or advice, commercialised and adopted by millions of farmers worldwide. Often far longer.
The global decline in agricultural R&D in the past four decades means less new technology will be available to farmers between now and 2030 than in the past two generations. Also, by its nature, much of the existing new technology will not help to raise global food output because it is geared more to the needs of agribusiness corporations than it is to the needs of farmers or consumers.
Much of this technology is quite unsuitable for use in the developing world or in smallholder agriculture, and will do nothing to overcome hunger and unsustainability as it is highly dependent on costly and increasingly scarce inputs. So the rate of technology diffusion from the developed to the developing world is also going to fall.
There is an urgent need, not only to redouble the agricultural research effort worldwide but to develop a new ‘eco-agriculture’ that is sustainable and less dependent on heavy use of energy, water, nutrients and other increasingly scarce industrial inputs.
Creating it is humanity’s most pressing scientific challenge.
This new food producing system has to be science-based. It has to be low input. It has to replenish, not destroy. And it has to work for farmers large and small, everywhere.
Julian Cribb is an award winning science writer with over 7000 published articles. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) and principal of Julian Cribb & Associates, consultants in science communication.
His book ‘The Coming Famine’ is about the global food crisis.