A Global Agricultural Research Partnership

Producing more food using less land: how can science help?

Woman with a recent harvest of rice in the rainfed village of Gorita, Andhra Pradesh, India - photo credit: F. Fiondella (IRI/CCAFS)
The solution to feeding the world’s growing population will have to come from land that is already in use for agricultural purposes – and science will be the answer

Agriculture holds enormous potentials to reduce poverty in the developing world, to strengthen the sustainability of our global food system, and to rebuild and revitalize fragile communities so they can move from dependency to self-sufficiency. But this can only happen if we take scientific innovations and move them along the chain into farmers’ hands and people’s stomachs.

With limitations to the amount of new land that will be available for cultivation in the coming years, Dr Frank Rijsberman believes the solution to feeding the world’s growing population will have to come from land that is already in use for agricultural purposes – and science will be the answer.

“In the 1960-70s the implementation of systems based on growing improved varieties of wheat and rice – varieties that could produce far greater yields and resist disease – coupled with research in the use of fertilizers and in irrigation systems drove the Green Revolution in Asia, Latin America, the Near East and the Middle East. Millions of lives were saved from starvation thanks to these new varieties and cropping practices developed by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and the International Rice Research Institute (two members of the CGIAR Consortium)” Dr Rijsberman said.

“It wasn’t just poor countries and farmers that benefited from the step-change through science. Australia ranks among the top 10 wheat-producing countries in the world and 98% of the area sown to wheat in Australia uses varieties developed by CIMMYT, estimated to have increased the value of outputs from the Australian wheat industry by at least $750 million,” he said.

In terms of the developing world, Dr Rijsberman said agricultural science is already having a powerful impact, in many cases with Australia’s assistance, and more can be done.

“Each year, we add another 75 million or so people to our planet, most residing in the developing world, especially in Asia and Africa. To feed all those people, we will need to increase food production by 70%.

“75% of this additional food will have to come from land already in use for agricultural purposes. So we have to use the land more productively and judiciously.

“Much of the additional food will be produced by small-scale farmers in developing countries, a majority of whom are women. Currently many women are not empowered to fully benefit from biological research and produce far lower yields than in agricultural systems like here in Australia. Therefore we utilize social science to identify how to transform their access to land, capital, training, labor etc so that they are able to boost their yields and better manage their environments.

“Most of the food will be consumed  in developing countries, including the marginal and isolated areas where the poor, and poorest of the poor, tend to live. These are people for whom food equals 80-90% of the household budget, who are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity and to food price spikes.

“We have to produce all this additional food in a context of a changing climate, with episodes of extreme weather and unpredictability. So, we must be climate smart and balance food production with environmental protection.

“However, we have learnt over the last 40 years that these changes cannot happen through scientific advance alone. CGIAR is working with partners who can deliver scientific research to farmers and policy makers, be they government extension, local companies, bloggers or finance organizations. Science can help to grow more food with less land and water – through sustainable intensification. However governance and policies are essential to make this possible. Internationally they can particularly help limit food price volatility, regionally they can help manage shared resources such as water in shared river basins, nationally and locally they can help manage land rights and farmers’ access to markets.   We need to work together to increase investment and commitment; develop new talents, and use greater collaborations for synergy and innovation. The new CGIAR is ready – with its strategic portfolio of research programs to make ensure a food secure future for all” he concluded.

Note: related issues of

  • Matching research priorities to future development needs
  • Partnerships for impact
  • Capacity development for impact

will be the focus of the second Global Conference on Agriculture Research for Development, co-organized by GFAR and CGIAR which will start on 29th October in Uruguay.

Photo credit: F. Fiondella (IRI/CCAFS)

Some media reports of Frank’s involvement:

Today’s food price spikes are the tip of the iceberg (On line opinion. Australia)
Science promoted as solution to food security (interview on ABC Rural)

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