Food industry's stake in expanded crop research

by Morton Sosland
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Stepped-up global agricultural research being undertaken largely in response to concerns about regions hit by famine and malnutrition should not be overlooked in the belief it has little to offer the food industry in developed nations. Like the great advances in technology that flow from research aimed mainly at achieving military superiority, high potential exists for American food production gains from findings in studies focused on solving hunger in the Horn of Africa. Such possibilities merit attention because of the increased efforts to discover ways not just to provide immediate relief from food shortages prompted by natural disasters like floods and drought but of taking advantage of recent scientific progress that increasingly is seen as having huge potential for boosting food production.

Research seeking to im-prove food productivity has much to gain from this new era of opportunity. Lloyd Le Page, head of the Consultative Group for International Agriculture Research (CGIAR), described this by saying. “Rapid scientific progress has been made in genetics, ecology and information technology, offering a multitude of new ways to improve agricultural productivity and environmental sustainability.” In taking advantage of this progress, CGIAR has launched global research programs to expand food security while protecting water, soil and biodiversity in developing nations that have the most threatening food problems.
A marked change has been observed in the attitude of the international aid agencies, both those operated by government and by the private sector. Instead of pressing for food and funding assistance to avert starvation, these agencies are asking for help in undertaking research meant to prevent future occurrences. Mr. Le Page again underscored this approach by saying, “Food aid alone does not help people withstand the next shock.” He adds, “No matter how severe, droughts do not have to lead to famine. Droughts are natural events, famines are not. Famines happen when countries and regions are not equipped to deal with extremes in weather.”

Significantly the World Bank has taken the global lead in seeking to assure adequate investment in agricultural research. It has helped to stir CGIAR and similar organizations to adopt a strategy for global food research that reflects a new funding model expanding the budget for this work by 2013 to $1 billion annually. Investing in smallholder farming is guided by the bank’s Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, which is backed by six countries as well as the Gates Foundation.

It is the fear and reality of millions of people not having sufficient food that are the principal driving forces behind this research. Yet, a fascinating impetus comes from another sort of fear, the one associated with the outlook for the global economy. Decisions to proceed with research are spurred by unwillingness to allow economic gloom to dampen decisions about investing in these programs. Similarly, worrying volatility is cited as a reason to proceed and not to let this slow the search for expanding agricultural productivity.

Besides likely benefits for the food industry in developed countries that may stem from expanded scientific research on agriculture, a further important benefit is likely in the way these basic studies seeking to improve production are accompanied by emphasis on keeping international markets open. The World Bank says this effort is essential “to get food where it is needed, to provide incentives to farmers who expand production, and to avoid panic behavior created by export bans.” Increasingly, the attention to boosting food production is also being accompanied by recognizing how important it is to invest in infrastructure like roads as well as distribution and marketing. Doing this requires budgetary reforms in most of the developing nations where it is hoped food production will increase. Making these efforts even more central to the food industry’s future is the parallel suggestion that investing in food manufacturing may be as important as all these other steps in order to assure the entire world an adequate food supply.
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