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winter 2013 PArtnerS
The scramble for natural
resources: how science can help
Science now needs to find a way to increase food productivity by about 50% over the
next four decades—without using more land or water.
BY Dr FrAnK rIjSBerMAn
Chief executive officer of the Consultative Group on
International Agricultural research
oday we are facing humanity’s
greatest challenge. the food price
spikes that began in 2008, along with
the ensuing scramble for natural
resources that these sparked, have
served as a massive wake-up call.
Declining agricultural yields, a drop in
support for agricultural research, depleted
natural resources and climatic changes are
just some of the factors that have brought
us to the brink of disaster. if we are to feed
future populations without damaging the
environment further, we are going to have to
learn how to do much more with much less.
the United nations Food and Agriculture
Organization (FAO) tells us that our world
population is likely to grow from seven billion to
more than nine billion by 2050, requiring about
a 70% increase in food production. Another
FAO estimate indicates that at least 75% of that
increase will have to come from land already
being used for agricultural purposes.
Science now needs to find a way to increase
food productivity by about 50% over the next
four decades—without using more land or
water. Such an increase is likely to come from
the people who currently experience low yields:
small-scale farmers in developing countries,
the majority of whom are women. And science
needs to help them achieve those increases in a
So this is the focus and mandate of publicly
funded agricultural research, and the largest
group of researchers in that arena come
from the Consultative Group on international
Agricultural research (CGiAr).
is it possible?
Absolute yields of key cereals have increased
steadily over the past five decades, but since
these increases have to feed an ever-increasing
population, the percentage increase has
actually gone down from about 3% to slightly
more than 1%. that is not enough to sustain
in addition, there is every indication that
the yields for rice, wheat and maize are
beginning to level off, posing a far greater
challenge for us if we aim to build on and
increase that productivity.
these relative decreases in productivity can
be traced back to the Green revolution in the
1960s and 1970s. By working with researchers
from the international Maize and wheat
improvement Center (CiMMYt), Dr norman
Borlaug helped develop semi-dwarf, high-
yielding varieties of cereal grains that, together
with increased fertiliser use and massive
investment in irrigation, led to the doubling of
yields and abundant supplies of cheap food in
Asia, the Americas, the near east and the Middle
east. Billions of people escaped starvation, but
the increased yields also led to complacency and
neglect of, and a drop in support for, agriculture.
closing yield gaps
if we look at some of the results coming out of
the international water Management institute
(a CGiAr member centre) and the work it is
undertaking with the CGiAr Challenge Program
on water and Food in a number of major river
basins, we see that water productivity is very low
in these areas. the current cereal productivity
in almost all of these basins, which together are
home to more than a billion people and more
than 50% of the poorest people in the world, is
between 0.2 –0 .5 kilograms against a potential of
1–2 kg per cubic metre of water used. As such,
there is a huge potential to intensify agriculture
in these areas.
CGiAr has the scientific know-how to
close some of these yield gaps, and not just in
terms of water. For example, the international
rice research institute (irri), another CGiAr
member centre headquartered in the
Philippines, has paddy fields on its extensive
campus that have been producing three crops
of rice a year, with each crop yielding about
7 tonnes, for a total of 21 t of rice per hectare
from the same piece of land. Of course these
crops are cultivated under ideal conditions—
fertile soils and plenty of water, coupled with a
meticulous crop-management strategy.
Outside the gates of irri, farmers get only
two crops of about 4 t/ha per year, which
means 8 t rather than 21 t.
in Africa, the smallholders who grow rice
in rainfed upland valleys might get as little as
one crop of 2 t/ha per year. However, such a
situation does have potential.
those farmers might have problem soils, no
access to fertiliser, or no money to buy fertiliser.
they might not have seed companies bringing
them new seeds, or roads to take their produce
to market. their governments might not have
extension policies that can help them be part
of the value chain to enable them to process
their rice. But there is a whole series of things
that we can do to help, although none of them
are necessarily easy.
Of course, just because the yields are only
2 t does not mean that we know how to increase
them immediately. Many of the low yields in
Africa are caused by disease. So we need to use
science to help develop new crop varieties that
are disease resistant. this will require a constant
effort, but we take hope from knowing that there
is a crop yield gap and that there is tremendous
potential in science today to help us close it.
two trends are having a big impact on science
for tomorrow’s agriculture.
First, there is the life science revolution that
is being propelled by molecular biology, which
has, over the past decade, changed the way
our scientists do business, both in their CGiAr
centres and with their partners.
then there is the it revolution, which is
relevant even today, not only to Australian
farmers, but also to smallholder farmers. For
example, laser land levelling, which offers great
potential for water savings and higher grain
yields, is becoming increasingly popular with
farmers everywhere. More and more farmers are
also using mobile phones to access extension
services and market information.
with the help of countries such as Australia,
which is supporting publicly funded research in
agriculture, CGiAr is ready to take advantage of
these and other scientific opportunities. irri, for
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