Appropriate technology to feed the planet

ID-100143278As we know the world faces the challenge of feeding a growing population in the context of a changing climate. Weather events currently impacting crop production are only expected to get more frequent and more severe. As a new report published by The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation and the London School of Economics, entitled Feeding the planet in a warming world. Building resilient agriculture through innovation, argues this challenge will require an agricultural system as well as individual crops that are more resilient to future shocks and stresses.

The report also argues that current policies to achieve a more resilient agricultural sector fail to recognise the inadequacy of relying only on existing technologies. While overcoming global socio-economic barriers to accessing and disseminating such appropriate technologies should be a priority this in itself is not enough. Authors claim that we will also require “critical, game-changing solutions for building global agricultural resilience”.  In particular new higher-yielding and more nutritious crop varieties that use less water while being more resistant to pests and diseases and more tolerant of weather extremes: heat, cold, flooding, drought. This includes the use of ‘demonstrably safe’ genetically modified (GM) crops. As the report states, “Agriculture will need every existing tool in the box, as well as the development of new ones.”

So we know why we need new technologies and why we need to support the systems of innovation that generate them but how can policies be developed to support agricultural research and development, particularly as investment in this area has declined in the past? The report outlines three policies that need to be implemented across the globe as well as in individual countries in order to develop a suitable ‘agricultural innovation ecosystem’. These are:

  • Boosting global public investment in advanced agriculture innovation. In particular the US should triple its current investments in agricultural research to support advanced technology generation that the private sector alone cannot be relied upon to produce.
  • Governments worldwide should reform GMO regulations. Authors state that “there is no agricultural policy change that could be adopted with more positive impacts and fewer downsides than drastically reducing regulations applied to crops improved through biotechnology.” They argue that regulatory requirements around the use of GM crops must be less burdensome and instead decisions should be based on scientific evidence and questions of food safety.
  • Create or strengthen institutions to serve a Centers of Innovation Excellence. The report argues that while many organisations have some of the capabilities of meeting our future food needs, there is no one organisation that is able to tackle the problem. Organisations such as national agricultural research systems, the private sector and international organisations such as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) must work together and engage other institutions to tackle this multidisciplinary challenge.

A compelling report but one that will sound alarm bells with some. Over reliance on technology, at the expense of addressing structural problems of the global food system (e.g. access to food), failing to view technology as one part of a whole systems approach and faith in the power of GM crops are just some of the issues that one could raise. As Gordon Conway often states when talking about technology, the most important aspect of any innovation is that is locally appropriate. A technology must be effective, readily accessible and affordable, easy to use, environmentally friendly and serve a real need, or in other words adapted to the wider system.

Given the culmination of challenges the world faces, finding new ways of addressing our problems is essential but the outcomes must be appropriate.

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