Reaping the Benefits

Following the Parliamentary and Technology Committee’s meeting this week, focusing on GM technology in crop production, I took the time to read the Royal Society’s recent report; “Reaping the benefits: science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture“, which was heavily cited at the evening event. The report provides an extremely interesting overview of a very complex topic, characterised by Prof. John Beddington as the ‘perfect storm’; how to feed more people, on less land, using less water and energy, in the context of climate change and in a way which doesn’t damage the evironment? The Royal Society steering group conclude that ‘sustainable intensification’ is needed to achieve the 50 – 100% increase in crop production needed to feed a population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050.

The report touches upon the gains made during the ‘green revolution’ of the 1960’s, with huge growth in food production in Asia (280%); particularly China, which saw agricultural productivity increase fivefold. A 70% increase in growth was achieved in Europe. The benefits of the revolution were not evenly distributed however; Africa saw a 140% increase, yet food production then fell from the 1970s, only re-gaining 1960 levels in 2005. There have been calls for a ‘greener revolution’, building on the original gains made in the latter half of the 20th century, but investment in research into agriculture has declined in recent years, due to complacency over food prices and availability, the Society concludes.

In expanding food production into the future, the global community faces an important choice: expand the area of agricultural land to increase gross production, or increase yields on existing land. The report concludes that expanding the land area available for agriculture is untenable: to keep pace with current per capita consumption would require a doubling of land used for crops, which would result in undesirable environmental and social consequences and increased greenhouse gases through ploughing. Instead, the report concludes that sustainable intensification on existing sites, coupled with habitat restoration, should be the way forward.

Any system is unsustainable, the report suggests, if it depeneds on non-renewable inputs; it cannot consistently and predictably deliver desired outputs; and it can only deliver these outputs by requiring the cultivation of more land and/ or causes adverse and irreversible environmental impacts which threaten ecological functions. To ensure sustainable intensification, the report concludes, greater investment is needed in crop genetics (both advanced biotechnology, such as GM, and conventional plant breeding) and in crop management practices (such as integrated pest management and planting seed mixtures). Both public and private investment is needed to advance research in these areas: public, to fund those areas which will not yield long-term returns for private companies, such as crop management techniques (likely to have no particular product or intellectual property for commercialisation associated with them); private to transfer the benefits from publicly funded research to markets.

In examining GM particularly, the working group concludes that there is no reason to expect any adverse impacts on health through the consumption of crops including transgenes, and that this technology, although not offering a panacea, can make an important contribution to increasing yields. Over the long term, advances which could be seen include the modification of crops’ metabolism to more efficient convert solar energy to carbohydrate or for the fixation of nitrogen. There could be a shift from annual to perennial crops – there are no perennial crops at present – enhancing carbon storage and reducing greenhouse gases from annual tillage of the soil. The asexual reproduction of seed by high-yielding varieties could be engineered, avoiding costly and lengthy procedures – least accessible to those in developing countries – to produce high yielding varieties breeding cycle after breeding cycle.

The report is wide-ranging in its scope and there is certainly far too much to cover here. One recommendation which the BES could consider taking forward is in relation to the training and development of crop scientists. The working group suggests that attention should be paid to enhancing the plant science component of biology A’levels, as a way to encourage young people to study subjects allied to farming and agriculture at university. The working group also conclude however that, alongside the trend for many universities to close down or reduce their teaching in agriculture and crop science, take up of those courses which do exist is low. For the UK to take a leading role in research contributing to global food security, as the report calls for, there is a need, clearly amongst a disparate range of other measures, for universities to re-examine their courses to make them more attractive to potential research scientists of the future.