Agricultural research tackles global food shocks
Twenty months after the start of a global pandemic, we are still grappling with the enormity of the deaths and losses that have affected us all – 8 billion. We have been caught off guard by COVID-19 and most governments and corporations have struggled to respond. And yet the global toll would have been much worse without the capacity for public health and disease tracking and surveillance that has been built over decades of scientific investment.
Pandemics are just one example of a global shock that can cause hardship and massive loss in real time while triggering long-term repercussions for people and economies. We saw it with the 2008 global food price crisis, which was triggered by trade barriers and high energy prices. As agricultural costs rose and food crops were diverted to biofuels, progress towards food security, health and prosperity around the world was reversed.
Recent analyzes indicate that, given the combined effects of climate change and population growth, it is only a matter of time before we experience a shock from the global food system. The likelihood increases with the frequency and severity of natural disasters (such as storms, droughts and floods) and increases with urbanization, changing food consumption patterns, resource depletion and pollution. Of course, climate change will create COVID-like shocks on the system, but in this case, food is central to the overall functioning of what keeps us healthy. A shock to the global food system would exacerbate ongoing food crises and increase the number of internally displaced people worldwide. the Global Network Aagainst food crises warned that a third of the 30 million people who became refugees and asylum seekers globally in 2020 were from countries hit by severe food crises.
Scientists are concerned about the failure of several “bread baskets” and a recent scenario building exercise by Lloyd’s, the specialty insurance market, modeled the effect of a high occurrence of El Niño on staple crops around the world and the implications for insurance companies. Lloyd’s projections were catastrophic. A confluence of extreme weather events affecting major grain-producing regions would cause global production of maize to fall by 10 percent, soybeans by 11 percent, and wheat and rice by 7 percent. Production of corn, soybeans and wheat could drop in US alone 27 percent, 19 percent and 7 percent, respectively, resulting in a 5 percent drop in US stocks. This scenario exercise concluded that, “quadruple commodity prices and fluctuations in stocks of raw materials, coupled with civil unrest, are causing significant negative humanitarian consequences and major financial losses around the world. The existing risk management tools would be outdated in such a scenario. no match for a global food shock of this magnitude.
Crop improvement and agronomy can cushion shocks to the global food system
The best protection is actually to reduce the risks of the food system by strengthening the resilience of the food system against shocks. Past investments in agricultural research and development have generated evidence-based strategies that alleviate the global food price crisis.
Breeding and agronomy have dramatically increased crop yields in recent decades at a relatively low cost. All over the world, scientists, farmers, agribusinesses and governments regularly work together to detect agricultural problems and develop solutions. It is difficult to protect a field’s crops from torrential rains, but it is possible to prevent or control the spread of pests and diseases that often thrive in flooded fields. Likewise, it is possible to gradually increase a crop’s tolerance to drought by making plants more water efficient and using conservation agriculture practices. However, today we need to do more and better by adopting a systems approach to those efforts that move the agrifood system towards resilience rather than functioning efficiently.
Such solutions emerge from investments in agricultural research, which yield a huge return on investment. Analysis of the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the International Center for Agronomic Research in Arid Zones (ICARDA), the international agricultural research centers financed by public funds of the CGIAR working on wheat improvement, showed that the benefit-cost ratio associated with wheat improvement research ranged from 73: 1 to 103: 1.
Aimed at combating poverty and malnutrition, investment in improved wheat varieties has resulted in significant yield gains through widespread adoption in developing countries as well as positive spillovers in more advanced economies, benefiting farmers and consumers around the world. In the USA, almost 60 percent of the area of wheat cultivated between 1994 and 2014 was seeded to varieties related to CIMMYT. the wheat impact study also found that CGIAR-related wheat varieties were grown on nearly 106 million hectares in 2014, accounting for 71 percent of the area seeded to improved varieties globally.
As we continue to generate research-based solutions to protect food systems from devastating shocks, we must do more to scale up crop improvement, farmer-oriented research and extension services, especially in communities. most vulnerable agriculturalists. Global shocks can be anticipated and mitigated. If agricultural research and development were not chronically underinvested, the world would be in a much better position to prevent and respond to agricultural problems that cause food shocks while addressing the climate challenge.
Strongly linked to conflicts, pestilences and famines abound in human history. COVID-19 has revealed the depth and breadth of our vulnerability. Instead of a pandemic, the next global shock could easily be a global food crisis. If we are to prepare and respond effectively, agricultural research is our secret weapon. The international community must deepen its investments in agricultural research aimed at averting a crisis in the global food system while working to develop affordable and nutritious nutritious foods in the future, produced on the planet’s limits. We may be going into space, but there is only one Earth that provides our daily bread.
Bram Govaerts is Managing Director of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.