Thursday, May 08, 2008

Feeding the world, a case for Agricultural Research

America, and indeed the world, may now be facing a crisis so old that it comes as something completely new and unanticipated as recently as the beginning of this decade – an acute world-wide food shortage and concomitant resultant political instability. We must recognize our self-interest in meeting this challenge as the only world player with the potential research resources and capabilities to solve the problem.

However, the challenge of a problem created by current approaches to long term research with an eye towards eventual technology transfer included, has resulted in a now decades- long funding process of using stakeholder -driven appropriations from Congress instead of executive branch requests. While any effort to fund a program or project such as the one below is desired, ultimately, we need to stop the earmark train and return to Presidential initiatives and requests. Today we have Congress proposing and the President disposing - which is a reversal of our traditional constitutional structure.

Thus, given today’s food crisis, and understanding that perhaps we should have been working on this project five years ago, now is not the time to decide that it is too late. We need to investigate all options to stay a leader in the world, and to help the world, including us, produce sufficient quantities of food. Here we have chosen rice as the most basic foodstuff on the planet.

It is important to understand that this is just one project of USDA ARS. The century of leadership on all fields is being compromised. Programs ranging from human nutrition to animal science, the environment to new cultivars adapted to our urban areas, continue to struggle for funding. ARS works to secure the country’s trade by assessing potential dangerous organisms with an ever smaller staff and more to search. The safety and well being of our food supply should be a priority in the defense of our nation.

Why do we have to wait for a stakeholder interest group to petition Congress to fund research like this? Are we the people not an interest group? Is it possible for the people of the United States to ask for an earmark if the Pressident will not ask for us?

The Rice Crises:

There are a number of factors that contribute to the overall rice crisis.

A. The world is consuming more rice than it is producing. The green revolution of the 1960s and 1970s led to a rapid increase in rice yields and overall production with a subsequent reduction in global poverty. However, with a steady decline (1-2% per year) in arable land, and increasing population (ca 1.5 million people per week) the gains of the green revolution had been negated by 2000. Rice prices have been rising steadily from a low of ~$200 per ton in early 2001, indicating that consumption has outstripped supply.

B. Annual growth in average rice yields is declining. Average yield increases from 1970-1990 were 2.1%, where as growth since 2000 has been close to zero.

C. Reduced public investment in agricultural research and development. With the abundance and low price of rice in the 1990s, there was complacency in agricultural research and development and investment as a percentage of GDP has been negative for developed countries for the period 1991-2000 (

D. Oil prices. Costs of energy have added to general inflationary pressure, but have added to the cost of shipping rice, fertilizer, pumps, etc. In addition, the recent mandate in the US and Europe that the percentage of bio-ethanol in fuel should be increased to reduce the impacts of climate change, has reduced grain exports, primarily corn from North America. In turn, this has increased reliance on rice production for individual countries to meet cereal demand. Interestingly, China recently announced a new mandate to obtain ethanol from non-corn sources (primarily cassava and sweet potato) in order to reserve corn production in food systems.

E. Climate Uncertainty. Natural disasters, including widespread drought in India and China in 2002, Australia in 2004-2007; typhoons in the Philippines in 2006, and major flooding in Bangladesh in 2007, (not to mention Myanmar’s devastating cyclone this week), have contributed to recent production shortfalls. While these anomalies are consistent with human-induced climatic change, it is unclear if there is a direct cause and effect for a single event. However, documented changes in high night time, relative to day time temperatures may already be having a negative effect on rice yields. Overall, greater climatic uncertainty, particularly with respect to temperature extremes or precipitation, must be quantified and projected for rice growing regions. In addition, effects on pests, weeds and diseases, particularly recent outbreaks in planthopper and viral infections, need to be determined in the context of a changing climate.

What can we do?

A. Increase average yields. Since land expansion is not feasible, increased yields per unit area must keep pace with population. Development and dissemination of improved technologies is the only long-term answer to ensure that adequate rice is available to the world’s poor.

B. Accelerate the adaptation of rice lines that have increased tolerance to environmental stress. This can be done by genetic engineering and identification of QTLs related to a given stress; or, alternatively by incorporating wild, related rice lines that are known to tolerate stress conditions into traditional breeding programs, or by a systematic evaluation of the thousands of existing lines.

C. Upgrade the means to transfer new varieties to the field level. Varieties exist that could increase production but may not be adapted by the farmer because they are not available.

D. Develop a new generation of rice scientists and researchers for the public and private sectors. Because of the success of the green revolution, few new scientists were added to R and D during the 1990s. There must be a major investment in training a new generation of scientists—before the current generation retires.

E. Increase public investment in agriculture. Adequate investment must be made with respect to physical infrastructure such as roads, irrigation systems, etc. However, investment in research personnel, including scientists, technicians, engineers, is also crucial. Also critical, although frequently overlooked, is investment in information storage and dissemination, such as libraries, crop models, publicly accessed data bases, etc.

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