Agricultural technologies for food security, or something more?

Boosting food production requires investment in technology: but supportive policies are needed for good results.

By Vanessa Meadu

In a world that is becoming increasingly food-insecure, due to population growth, climate change, volatile food prices, unequal food access, and inefficient supply chains, what solutions exist to feed 9 billion people by the year 2050?

The problem we face is by its nature very complex, so it stands to reason that solutions will need to address a range of issues, often several at once. Where do we begin?

As agricultural researchers, it’s easy to start by looking at the biophysical world. Hundreds of existing agricultural technologies and practices have the potential to boost agricultural yields in the developing world, and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) of the CGIAR has undertaken a massive effort to evaluate which of these technologies and practices are most appropriate for different places facing different conditions. The project seeks to compile evidence-based information on risks and benefits of these technologies and practices and the policies necessary to implement them. Claudia Ringler, who is part of the IFPRI team implementing the work, shared early findings with participants on 16 June at the Rio+20 sustainable development conference as part of a session called Feeding the World: Sustainable Agriculture and Innovation.

"Agricultural technologies are really at the heart of food productivity growth,” said Ringler. By surveying a wide range of agricultural experts, and combining the results with crop models, her team assessed common practices such as zero tillage, conventional breeding, genetic modification, integrated soil fertility management, irrigation technologies, water harvesting and organic agriculture, to better understand the impact of each technology in different contexts. The results are enlightening: integrated soil fertility management, for example, can significantly boost maize in rainfed and irrigated environments, and has positive impacts on rice and wheat yields grown under the same conditions. Drought-tolerant rice breeds are also likely to help increase yields.  These results are pertinent to policy makers at Rio+20 seeking guidance for their investments in agricultural technologies.  

But technology isn’t everything. Ringer concludes: “While biophysical potential often exists to significantly increase yields, institutions, governance systems, political will and poor rural infrastructure remain obstacles to achieving full technological potential.” These challenges are particularly striking in African countries, which could most benefit from new technologies and practices.

Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, CEO of the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) shared her perspectives from working in African agriculture. She highlighted the need for technology investments in both global and local research. Unless global technologies are tailored to local conditions, then these interventions will fail achieve the desired transformations. She also stressed that rural women, who are already bear a disproportionally heavy work burden, must not be put at further disadvantage by practices that are labour-intensive. (Read a related story on gender, climate change, and food security).

Dr. Sibanda also noted that in Africa the private sector is not sufficiently robust, or engaged in, agricultural development activities:

“For markets to be functional,” she said, “you need buyer, seller, and the thread to tie it together. In Africa you see middle-men who work as extractors; they are not part of the system. The system is not in place to ensure your investment pays back over time. If the technology breaks down you need to wait for the next middle-man to sell you something new.”

The public sector also has an important role to play in supporting the implementation of new technologies. Currently, she said, insufficient money is going into research because African researchers are often not working on local issues and that findings are not made public goods. “Research is about empowering with knowledge,” she said “but research needs to feed the development agenda.”

Dr. Sibanda lauded Brazil for leading the way to ensure that research knowledge generated at local level indeed feeds the development agenda. Elisio Contini from Embrapa, the Brazilian national research agency, discussed the current state of Brazilian agriculture, including the successes in implementing low-tillage approaches, and also supporting multifunctional landscapes that combine crops, livestock and grasslands.

Farmers are “essential” to Brazil’s economy, said Dr. Contini. He cited that in the year 2000, Brazil exported $20 billion of agricultural products; in 2012 exports are expected to be worth $100 billion. Despite these successes, he noted that Brazil needs to increase yields through more sustainable land use. [read related story: Halting deforestation: lessons from Brazil]

After we identify appropriate technologies, and build the research and development support systems that ensure close links with local knowledge and communities, what else is needed to achieve food security? Adrian Fernandez, who sits on the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change, helped link technologies to the wider picture of the food system. We can only tackle these major food security issues and challenges by approaching them in an integrated way, said Dr. Fernandez, who is an Advisor on Sustainability, Metropolitan Autonomous University, Mexico.

He shared the Commission’s seven key actions for achieving food security in the face of climate change, specifically highlighting the need for countries to sustainably intensify agricultural production while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other negative environmental impacts of agriculture and how the Rio+20 process must catalyse significant global investments in sustainable agriculture and food systems in the next decade

[Watch: How to transition the global food system into a "safe operating space" by balancing how much food we produce, how we adapt to a changing climate, and how much agriculture contributes to further climate change.


More about this event: read coverage from the Earth Negotiations Bulletin

The CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) is covering the Rio+20 Conference live between 12 - 22 June. Read the latest stories related to agriculture and food security from the conference. To get the latest updates follow both CCAFS on Facebook and Twitter and Agriculture Day Facebook and Twitter. Join the conversation about agriculture and food security during at Rio+20 using #Rio4ag on Twitter.

Vanessa Meadu is the communications manager for CCAFS.