Last week, Oxfam released a report which states in no uncertain terms that ending poverty can happen without putting any more strain on our planet’s resources. Last month in his annual letter, Bill Gates talked about prioritizing agricultural innovation. By doing so, he is confident that we can improve global food security now, and into a future that is sure to include both more people and a changed climate.
But what does agricultural innovation for that future look like? And how do we create a ‘food future’ where we’re not only seeing enough food produced, but we’re seeing it produced on less land, with less degradation of resources?
The future of agriculture depends on innovations that will come from new kinds of collaboration. We need to see collaboration between scientists of all stripes – from biological and social to environmental scientists – all working together, with policymakers as well.
There’s no question that we’ve already seen amazing achievements when it comes to agricultural development. Plant breeders have made immense gains – including the invention of new varieties of seeds that yield large amounts. Soil scientists have created new locally adapted resource management practices to increase nutrients in the soil. And farmers’ organizations, social scientists, and agricultural extension workers have designed new strategies to get important information to farmers about how to grow and sell food.
All these practices contributed to the ‘Green Revolution’ – credited with saving over a billion lives. But that success came at the cost of natural resources and the environment that we cannot bear to repeat in feeding the next 2 billion.
I just spent a week with the grantee, the Global Futures project, working on the kind of collaborative approach we need moving forward. Teams at seven centres, all a part of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), came together to answer a critical question:
What are the promising technologies on the horizon that will help us all, and particularly the poor in developing countries, to feed all of the mouths, sustain natural resources, and adapt to a changing climate?
This project has brought together scientists from all disciplines to evaluate promising future technologies and their potential impacts on the environment, the global economy, and poor farming households. Working together in an entirely new way, this project is yielding precisely the types of insights and tools that we need to meet Bill’s call for prioritizing agricultural innovation.
Here’s what we know. We need agriculture that not only produces more food, but also does so on less land with less degradation of our natural resources. The future of agricultural innovation must give us food, biodiversity, and all of the other services that ecosystems provide like clean water, soil nutrients, and fresh air.
Kate Schneider is a research analyst with the agricultural development team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation