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Aseries of mini 'green revolutions',
each targeting specific needs, may
be the best way for agricultural
research and development (R&D)
to meet challenges posed by
the confluence of rising populations, climate
change, and competition for land and water
Unlike the Green Revolution of the 1960s,
when substantial production gains were
possible through plant breeding and improved
agronomy, we now need to make gains
incrementally by tailoring funding, investment,
policy and R&D to a wide spread of countries,
communities and markets.
There is no longer the same scope for a
'one size fits all' approach to global agricultural
development. The best approaches to ending
poverty are those that understand the issues
present within a country or region and design
responses accordingly to create the right
packages in the right place at the right time.
And the urgency of achieving this is
starting to be recognised again by the world
The connection between population growth,
food security and social security is now well
recognised. Today, the world's population stands
at 6.8 billion and rising. By 2050 it will reach nine
billion. Of today's 6.8 billion, more than one
billion live in poverty, lacking food security.
The reasons for this lack include a
convergence of factors beyond recent food
and financial crises: climate change, decreasing
funding for agricultural R&D over past decades
and a rapidly growing population. These are
balanced by the capacity of agricultural science
to deliver step-change improvements in
Agricultural R&D is our collective insurance
against a plateauing of growth in food
production must cease at some point. Dire
predictions of mass starvation were made
during the middle of last century, at least until
the Green Revolution. Scientists, led by Norman
Borlaug, contributed to a transformation of
agriculture that enabled food production to
more than keep pace with population growth.
The financial and food crises of 2008, with
attendant rises in food prices, have now led
many to refocus on the question of feeding
Food security is once again on the
international agenda. Some would suggest
that feeding nine billion people requires a new
Green Revolution, while others are pessimistic
about such prospects.
But agricultural science can continue to
match food production to population growth.
More than that, it can be a catalyst for lifting
many of the world's estimated 1.4 billion poor
people from poverty.
Agricultural science has a tremendous track
record of success. During the past 50 years,
agricultural R&D has been pivotal in lifting
gross world food production by 138%, from
1.84 billion tonnes to 4.38 billion tonnes.
Most extraordinarily, that increase has
been achieved as international investment in
agricultural research has declined over past
decades. The value of aid to agriculture has
halved since the mid 1980s. The share of aid
to agriculture has declined even more sharply,
from 17% in the late 1980s to 6% in 2007.
Agricultural research represents only a fraction
of this amount.
There is an apparent conundrum when you
overlay the steep upward trend in agricultural
productivity against stagnant or declining
research investment. The answer lies in the long
lag times, sometimes several decades, between
investment and impact.
The global disinvestment in agricultural
research is startling when one considers how
important agricultural production has been as
a driver of growth in the developing world. As
Professor Peter Timmer observed, "no country
has been able to sustain a rapid transition out
of poverty without raising productivity in its
Broad-based economic growth in
developing countries is achieved by focusing
on the largest sector---agriculture. In most
developing countries 60--80% of the population
are employed in, or reliant for their livelihood
Achieving productivity gains in this sector
lifts incomes, reduces poverty and creates
opportunities in other sectors, through
freeing up labour and generating growth in
The Green Revolution is perhaps the
pinnacle of development catalysed by
agricultural research. The matches of new
varieties and fertiliser and the cultivation of new
land in both rainfed and irrigated environments
was a perfect package of innovations, at the
right time, in the right place.
While it is easy to overlook the policy drivers,
and policy environments that enabled such
success, the pivotal role of agricultural research
cannot be denied.
Since that time, agricultural R&D has
endeavoured to replicate these gains. A focus
on land, water and fertiliser, in concert with
new higher-yielding varieties, represented the
low-hanging fruit. It is little wonder that rates
Dr Nick Austin, ACIAR CEO, addressed the annual ABARE Outlook conference
on the issues of food security and the role of agricultural research and development.
This is an edited version of his presentation
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