Author: Shamika N. Sirimanne, Bob Bell, Ulrich Hoffmann, Bernadette Oehen, Adrian Muller and Lin Bautze
Affiliated organization: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)
Type of publication: Study
Date of publication: 2017
Science and technology for food security
Achieving food security by 2030 will be a major challenge and will remain so throughout the twenty-first century. The Sustainable Development Goals and other international efforts to achieve food security involve new technologies as an indispensable tool for eradicating hunger. This chapter discusses how certain scientific and technical applications may play a role in addressing the various aspects of food security.
Food availability: Science and technology to improve agricultural productivity
FAO identified a food gap of close to 70 per cent between the crop calories available in 2006 and the expected calorie demand in 2050. To close this gap, it would be necessary to increase food production by making genetic improvements, reduce food loss and waste, shift diets and raise productivity by improving or maintaining soil fertility, pastureland productivity and restoring degraded land. In this context, food availability will have to make up for this food gap, while taking into account decreasing arable land, limited water resources and other environmental, ecological, and agronomic constraints. It is estimated that in the past 40 years, almost 33 per cent of the world’s arable land has been lost to pollution or erosion.
Science, technology, and innovation can play a critical role in producing more food by creating plant varieties with improved traits, as well as optimizing the inputs needed to make agriculture more productive.
Conventional cross-breeding for improved plant varieties and increased crop yields
Genetic modification of plant varieties can be used for nutrient fortification, tolerance to drought, herbicides, diseases, or pests, and for higher yields. Earlier forms of genetic modification in agriculture have involved conventional cross-breeding approaches. In the mid-1800s, Gregor Mendel formalized a technique of breeding a primary cultivar with a “relative crop” with desirable traits through successive generations until a resulting variety matched the characteristics of the target variety. Although plant improvements are limited to the best traits available within the same family of crops, such a technology continues to be useful, especially for smallholder farmers across a number of geographies. Recent efforts that harness conventional crossbreeding, facilitate capacity-building among farmers, and involve North–South cooperation include the Nutritious Maize for Ethiopia project as well as the Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance.
FAO identified a food gap of close to 70 per cent between the crop calories available in 2006 and the expected calorie demand in 2050
The former aims to improve household food security and nutrition in Ethiopia for an estimated 3.98 million people by promoting widespread adoption of quality protein maize (QPM) varieties among growers and consumers of maize. Farmers (28 per cent women), researchers, extension agents, local and regional government officials, and media personnel learned about the nutritional benefits of quality protein maize and how to increase its productivity during 1,233 farmer-focused learning events. This project introduces new populations to a maize variety with higher protein content in order to improve nutrition and productivity of participating farmers.
Soil management for increasing agricultural yields
Genetically improved varieties might not increase yields if constraints such as slow soil fertility are not overcome. Fertile soils play a pivotal role in sustaining agricultural productivity and thus food security. The focus on innovations and technological developments is more on crops and fighting pests and diseases. and less on sustainable soil management practices. However, healthy plants grow on healthy soils that are less affected by pests and diseases.
Synthetic fertilizers have been used to increase agricultural yields for decades but their capital intensity, dependence on natural gas – particularly in the case of nitrogen – and a large ecological footprint make them unsustainable. Fertilizer and water overuse can cause environmental damage and represent an economic waste for smallholder farmers. Furthermore, the Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils concluded that farmers are essentially mining the soil, which is why soil should be considered a non-renewable resource.
Irrigation technologies: Technologies that make water available for food production
Like soil fertility, the availability of water is a critical input for ensuring and improving crop productivity. Approximately 70 per cent of global freshwater supply is devoted to agriculture. Many farmers do not have access to water for agriculture because of physical water scarcity (not enough water to meet demands) or economic water scarcity (lack of investments in water infrastructure or insufficient human capacity to satisfy water demand), among other factors. In response to such challenges, low-cost and affordable drills, renewable energy-powered pumps and technologies for desalination and improved water efficiency can potentially make water more available for food production.
Lightweight drills for shallow groundwater and equipment to detect groundwater can potentially make groundwater more accessible as a form of irrigation. Solar-powered irrigation pumps could potentially increase access to irrigation where manual irrigation pumps that may be strenuous to use are inadequate or expensive motorized pumps with recurring fuel costs are financially out of reach. Affordable rainfall storage systems are also a potential technology for addressing irrigation.
Where diesel- or solar-powered pumps are not feasible, hydro-powered pumps can be used to irrigate fields wherever there is flowing water. Greenhouses can mitigate the unavailability of water caused by unpredictable rainfall and enable farmers to have a year-round growing season. For example, World Hope’s Greenhouses Revolutionizing Output (GRO) allows farmers to construct low-cost greenhouses ($500) in as little as two days that last over five years in Sierra Leone and Mozambique. Even when groundwater is available, brackish water may not be suitable for human consumption or crop irrigation. Water desalination technologies such as off-grid solar-powered electrodialysis reversal (EDR) systems can remove salts and minerals from such brackish water.
Adapting food production to climate change
STI should focus on re-integrating crop and livestock production and related closed nutrient cycles. In related to this, the mitigation potential of carbon sequestration in optimally managed agricultural cropand grasslands should be exploited more deeply. This potential is of the same order of magnitude as total agricultural emissions at the beginning, but declines over time while approaching a new, higher soil carbon equilibrium level in soils, generally reaching zero sequestration rates after few decades. Soil carbon losses can be reduced by protecting existing permanent grassland, and soil carbon sequestration can be increased in arable land by the application of organic fertilizers, minimal soil disturbance, agroforestry, mixed cropping and the planting of legumes.
When addressing climate change mitigation and adaptation in agriculture, it becomes evident that this is less about developing new practices than about making the available knowledge and skills widely available and supporting sustained implementation in the field. In particular, STI for climate change mitigation and adaptation should focus on information provision and knowledge transfer and should include social, as well as technical, innovations. Many practices, however, deliver both, and many of the effective adaptation, resilience and mitigation approaches to a changing climate offer important ecological, agronomic, economic and social co-benefits. In addition, locally adapted breeding for drought or heat-tolerant crop varieties, with a focus on underutilized crops, has great potential to support climate change adaptation in agriculture.
Early warning systems
Eighty per cent of the estimated 1.4 billion hectares of global cropland is rain fed, accounting for approximately 60 per cent of worldwide agricultural output. Accurate and reliable weather forecasts enable farmers, especially near the equator, to capitalize on rainfall for crop production in regions of extreme weather variability.
STI should focus on re-integrating crop and livestock production and related closed nutrient cycles. In related to this, the mitigation potential of carbon sequestration in optimally managed agricultural cropand grasslands should be exploited more deeply
Global systems have played critical roles in disseminating country and region-specific information to help farmers maximize productivity. These include the Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture, and Rice Market Monitor (FAO); the Famine Early Warning System Network (United States Agency for International Development) the Early Warning Crop Monitor (Group on Earth Observations) and the cloud-based global cropmonitoring system called Crop Watch (Chinese Academy of Sciences, ). Regional initiatives such as the Regional Cooperative Mechanism for Drought Monitoring and Early Warning in Asia and the Pacific (Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific) and the Trans-African Hydro-meteorological Observatory also make high-quality data available to their respective regions to improve crop productivity and food security.
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