Agricultural Research Fights Global Food Shocks | Opinion

Twenty months into a global pandemic, we are still grappling with the enormity of death and loss that has touched all 8 billion of us. We were caught off guard by COVID-19 and most governments and societies struggled to respond. And yet, the global toll would have been much worse without the public health and disease monitoring and surveillance capacity that was built through decades of scientific investment.

Pandemics are just one example of a global shock that can cause massive hardship and loss in real time while unleashing long-term repercussions for people and economies. We saw this with the 2008 global food price crisis, which was triggered by trade barriers and high energy prices. As farming costs rose and food crops were diverted to biofuels, progress toward food security, health and prosperity all over the world was reversed.

Recent analyses indicate that, given the combined effects of climate change and population growth, it is only a matter of time before we experience a global food system shock. The probability rises with the frequency and severity of natural disasters (such as storms, droughts and floods) and increases along with urbanization, changing food consumption patterns, resource depletion and pollution. Of course, climate change will create COVID-like shocks to the system, but in this case at the core of the overall functioning of what keeps us healthy is food. A global food system shock would exacerbate ongoing food crises and increase the number of displaced people in the world. The Global Network Against Food Crises warned that a third of the 30 million people who became refugees and asylum seekers around the world in 2020 originated from countries stricken by severe food crises.

Scientists worry about multiple "breadbasket" failure and a recent scenario-building exercise by Lloyd's, the specialist insurance market, modeled the effect of a strong El Niño occurrence on staple crops around the world and the implications for insurance companies. Lloyd's projections were catastrophic. A confluence of extreme weather events affecting main grain-producing regions would result in global drops in output of maize by 10 percent, soybean by 11 percent and wheat and rice by 7 percent. In the United States alone, maize, soybean and wheat production could fall by 27 percent, 19 percent and 7 percent, respectively, leading to a 5 percent drop in U.S. stocks. This scenario exercise concluded that, "quadrupled commodity prices and commodity stock fluctuations, coupled with civil unrest, result in significant negative humanitarian consequences and major financial losses worldwide." Existing risk management tools would be overwhelmed under such a scenario. Insurance can hedge against crop, business, or property loss, but it is no match for a global food shock of this scale.

Crop Improvement and Agronomy Can Buffer Global Food System Shocks

The best protection is actually reducing food system risks by building food system resilience against shocks. Previous investments in agricultural research and development generated evidence-based strategies that mitigate global food price crisis.

A cornfield is seen
A cornfield is seen. Andrew Lichtenstein/ Corbis via Getty Images

Breeding and agronomy have substantially increased crop yields over the past decades at a relatively low cost. Around the world, scientists, farmers, agricultural companies and governments routinely work together to detect agricultural problems and to develop solutions. It is difficult to protect crops on a field from torrential rains, but it is possible to prevent or control the spread of pests and diseases that often proliferate in flooded fields. Similarly, it is possible to gradually increase a crop's tolerance to drought by making the plants more water-efficient and by using conservation agriculture practices. However, today we need to do more and do better by taking a systems lens to those efforts that permits shifting the agrifood system to resilience rather than efficient functioning.

Such solutions emerge from investment in agricultural research, which gives a huge return on investment. Analysis by the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), the international CGIAR publicly funded agricultural research centers working on wheat improvement, showed the associated benefit-cost ratio for wheat improvement research ranged from 73:1 to 103:1.

Intended to fight poverty and malnutrition, investment in improved wheat varieties has delivered major yield gains through widespread adoption in the developing world as well as positive spillovers in more advanced economies, benefitting farmers and consumers everywhere. In the U.S., nearly 60 percent of the wheat area grown between 1994 and 2014 was sown to CIMMYT-related varieties. The wheat impact study also found that CGIAR-related wheat varieties were grown on nearly 106 million hectares in 2014, which represents 71 percent of the area sown to improved varieties globally.

As we continue to generate research-based solutions to shield food systems from devastating shocks, we must do more to scale up crop improvement, farmer centered research and extension services, especially in the most vulnerable farming communities. Global shocks can be anticipated and mitigated. If agricultural research and development were not chronically underinvested, the world would be much better positioned to prevent and respond to agricultural problems that cause food shocks while tackling the climate challenge.

Strongly intertwined with conflict, plagues and famines abound in human history. COVID-19 revealed the depth and breadth of our vulnerability. Instead of a pandemic, the next global shock could easily be a worldwide food crisis. If we are to prepare and respond effectively, agricultural research is our secret weapon. The international community must deepen its investment in agricultural research aimed at averting a global food system crisis while working toward future climate proved nutritious affordable food produced within planetary boundaries. We may be going into space but there is only one Earth that provides our daily bread.

Bram Govaerts is director general at International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.