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Reaping the benefits: science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture

Baulcombe, D., Crute, I., Davies, B., Dunwell, J., Gale , M., Jones, J., Pretty, J., Sutherland, W. and Toulmin, C., (2009) Reaping the benefits: science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture. Report. The Royal Society pp72. ISBN 9780854037841

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Food security is one of this century’s key global challenges. By 2050 the world will require increased crop production in order to feed its predicted 9 billion people. This must be done in the face of changing consumption patterns, the impacts of climate change and the growing scarcity of water and land. Crop production methods will also have to sustain the environment, preserve natural resources and support livelihoods of farmers and rural populations around the world. There is a pressing need for the ‘sustainable intensifi cation’ of global agriculture in which yields are increased without adverse environmental impact and without the cultivation of more land. Addressing the need to secure a food supply for the whole world requires an urgent international effort with a clear sense of long-term challenges and possibilities. Biological science, especially publicly funded science, must play a vital role in the sustainable intensifi cation of food crop production. The UK has a responsibility and the capacity to take a leading role in providing a range of scientifi c solutions to mitigate potential food shortages. This will require signifi cant funding of cross-disciplinary science for food security. The constraints on food crop production are well understood, but differ widely across regions. The availability of water and good soils are major limiting factors. Signifi cant losses in crop yields occur due to pests, diseases and weed competition. The effects of climate change will further exacerbate the stresses on crop plants, potentially leading to dramatic yield reductions. Maintaining and enhancing the diversity of crop genetic resources is vital to facilitate crop breeding and thereby enhance the resilience of food crop production. Addressing these constraints requires technologies and approaches that are underpinned by good science. Some of these technologies build on existing knowledge, while others are completely radical approaches, drawing on genomics and high-throughput analysis. Novel research methods have the potential to contribute to food crop production through both genetic improvement of crops and new crop and soil management practices. Genetic improvements to crops can occur through breeding or genetic modifi cation to introduce a range of desirable traits. The application of genetic methods has the potential to refi ne existing crops and provide incremental improvements. These methods also have the potential to introduce radical and highly signifi cant improvements to crops by increasing photosynthetic effi ciency, reducing the need for nitrogen or other fertilisers and unlocking some of the unrealised potential of crop genomes. The science of crop management and agricultural practice also needs to be given particular emphasis as part of a food security grand challenge. These approaches can address key constraints in existing crop varieties and can be applied widely. Current approaches to maximising production within agricultural systems are unsustainable; new methodologies that utilise all elements of the agricultural system are needed, including better soil management and enhancement and exploitation of populations of benefi cial soil microbes. Agronomy, soil science and agroecology—the relevant sciences—have been neglected in recent years. Past debates about the use of new technologies for agriculture have tended to adopt an either/or approach, emphasising the merits of particular agricultural systems or technological approaches and the downsides of others. This has been seen most obviously with respect to genetically modifi ed (GM) crops, the use of pesticides and the arguments for and against organic modes of production. These debates have failed to acknowledge that there is no technological panacea for the global challenge of sustainable and secure global food production. There will always be trade-offs and local complexities. This report considers both new crop varieties and appropriate agroecological crop and soil management practices and adopts an inclusive approach. No techniques or technologies should be ruled out. Global agriculture demands a diversity of approaches, specific to crops, localities, cultures and other circumstances. Such diversity demands that the breadth of relevant scientific enquiry is equally diverse, and that science needs to be combined with social, economic and political perspectives. In addition to supporting high-quality science, the UK needs to maintain and build its capacity to innovate, in collaboration with international and national research centres. UK scientists and agronomists have in the past played a leading role in disciplines relevant to agriculture, but training in agricultural sciences and related topics has recently suffered from a lack of policy attention and support. Agricultural extension services, connecting farmers with new innovations, have been similarly neglected in the UK and elsewhere. There is a major need to review the support for and provision of extension services, particularly in developing countries. The governance of innovation for agriculture needs to maximise opportunities for increasing production, while at the same time protecting societies, economies and the environment from negative side effects. Regulatory systems need to improve their assessment of benefits. Horizon scanning will ensure proactive consideration of technological options by governments. Assessment of benefi ts, risks and uncertainties should be seen broadly, and should include the wider impacts of new technologies and practices on economies and societies. Public and stakeholder dialogue—with NGOs, scientists and farmers in particular—needs to be a part of all governance frameworks.

Item Type:Report (Report)
Divisions:Faculty of Life Sciences > School of Biological Sciences > Environmental Biology
Interdisciplinary centres and themes > Centre for Food Security
ID Code:26470
Publisher:The Royal Society

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