The difficulties ahead are clear. Scientists expect the world’s demand for food to rise by at least 50% over the next 25 years, yet the rate of growth in crop yields is slowing down. Land and water available for agriculture is under pressure, while climate change, soil and landscape degradation and biodiversity loss are additional challenges.
Although properly funded international research is key, science alone will not provide the answers. A shift in the way we seek solutions is needed, the conference was told. That means co-operation in sharing knowledge must extend beyond the scientific community to economists, sociologists, ecologists, ethicists, etc, as well as to policymakers.
Turning research results into government action can only be achieved through improved two-way communication, said Ken Ash, the OECD’s deputy director of food, agriculture and fisheries. That also means building trust.
John Lock of the UK government’s fisheries directorate explained how fishermen, sceptical aboutthe reported fall in North Sea cod stocks, are now involved in collecting the data. Not only is fishermen’s confidence in the data increasing, but the data itself, while still showing stock depletion, has improved.
Meanwhile, technology-driven production and global supply chains have increased consumer concerns about food safety. As Leendert Wesdorp from Unilever, put it, industry will have to ensure that the products live up to their promises. Several participants called for more transparency and traceability, including improved structures for involving civil society.
Enhancing the nutritional value of food also demands coordination . According to Jean Kinsey, co-director of the US Food Industry Center, supermarkets now play a bigger role in setting food safety and quality standards. Bruce Silverglade, president of the International Association of Consumer Food Organisations, pointed to an obesity epidemic, which will require substantial research including behavioural research, to resolve.
The development of transgenic (GM) crops is another area of concern. Beyond farming, public distrust affects the likes of forest biotech too, where research is “much behind agriculture biotechnology,” according to Risto Seppala of the Finnish Forest Research Institute.
Zhangliang Chen of the China Agricultural University presented a forceful case for GM plants. With the population of China expected to reach 1.6 billion by 2020 and a decline in the arable land available, crop yields must increase by 40-50% over the next 15 years. Biotechnology will play an important role, he said.
But Elias Fereres of the University of Cordoba in Spain was less positive, arguing that the prospects for the development of transgenic varieties with complex performance characteristics that will increase yield are still some way off.
Beyond agriculture, harnessing bio-mass–plants, forest material and animal waste–for fuel was identified as another key area for research and development.
Clearly, there is much to do. As Tony Burne, chair of the governing body of the OECD Cooperative Research Programme, concluded, progress is needed in three broad areas: meeting the natural resources challenge; putting sustainability into practice; and addressing new issues in the global food chain.”
*The conference on “Challenges and Opportunities in Agri-Food Research”, was held on 18-20 May 2005, Rome, Italy, and was co-hosted by the Italian Ministry of Agricultural and Forestry Policies, the Italian Ministry of the Environment and the Protection of the Territory, and Italian Council for Agricultural Research.
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©OECD Observer No 250, July 2005