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Science on the Menu for a Food-Secure World

January 12, 2011

In on-going media coverage of renewed concern about global food security, agricultural and environmental science is moving to the center of the debate, which was sparked by a recent report on rising food prices from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

At issue is whether the new price spike presents a worrisome sign of much worse trouble to come – i.e., recurring food price crises like that of 2008 – or amounts to little more than a transitory imbalance between supply and demand. Despite the widely divergent views on this issue, there is agreement on the need for improved food production, with technological and policy change figuring importantly on the menu of options.

An 11 January letter to the Financial Times from Lloyd Le Page, CEO of the CGIAR Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers, reinforces this point, arguing that “science is rapidly rising” to new challenges like climate change and water scarcity, “with the benefit of more powerful tools and stronger partnerships for putting new knowledge to work.”

In a 10 January post on the Dot Earth blog of the New York Times, Gerald Nelson, senior research fellow at the CGIAR’s International Food Policy Institute (IFPRI), introduces to the debate new research results suggesting that a 40 percent increase in the growth of cereal productivity is needed to contain growth in cereal prices by 2050. Whether technical innovation can deliver such increases and whether people will actually invest in these innovations are among today’s “great food security questions,” according to Nelson.

Addressing these questions optimistically, Juergen Voegele, Director of Agriculture and Rural Development at the World Bank, calls for “very significant investments in agriculture R&D,” aimed at boosting overall productivity. He argues for “a sustained global effort” to reduce rural poverty, noting that “the successful reform of the CGIAR” is a “positive step in this direction.”

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