Research And Development Seen As Key To Solving World Food Crisis

World agriculture needs a major research and development initiative to reverse declining crop production and avoid a global food crisis, says an international food policy expert.

Agricultural output has slowed in the last 20 years – an alarming trend, given a growing world population and recent riots in various countries sparked by rising food prices, said Philip Pardey, a University of Minnesota agr icul tural economist.

But it’s hard to increase food production without ramping up research and development for it, Pardey recently told a University of Manitoba audience.

However, funding for agricultural research and development is dropping as governments and industry pare their budgets. As it is, payoffs for R&D projects take years, even decades, to occur, he said.

All the more reason for an urgent emphasis on R&D spending to improve stagnant crop production, said Pardey, a former research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C.

He was the guest speaker at the Daryl F. Kraft Lecture, an annual event held in honour of the late U of M agricultural economist.

Pardey used a slide presentation to trace productivity rates for wheat, rice and corn, the world’s three major grains. His charts showed a “non-trivial” slowdown in productivity for wheat and rice between 1990 and 2008 as compared to the previous 30 years. Only corn maintained a productivity growth rate.

Unless productivity growth improves, world food output will remain stagnant while the demand for it increases, said Pardey.

The world’s current estimated population of 6.8 billion people is predicted to increase to 8.9 billion by 2050 and 9.75 billion by 2150.

To feed all those people, agriculture must “ramp up” R&D to increase its productivity, said Pardey, who spoke earlier in the day at the GrainWorld conference.

Unfortunately, 40 to 70 per cent of agricultural R&D today goes toward merely maintaining current production levels – sort of like running hard just to stand still, said Pardey.

Add to that the fact that it can take decades for R&D to show results in the field and the situation becomes even more critical, he said.

Pardey noted it took 26 years for Roundup Ready soybeans to move from an idea in a scientist’s mind to a commercial product. Hybrid corn took nearly 60 years. Bt corn took nearly a century.

During a question period, Pardey acknowledged it was difficult to make institutions aware of the need to increase funding for R&D for agriculture.

Later, in an interview, he said a system in his native Australia might be one solution.

Pardey said a scheme implemented in the mid-1980s allows Australian grower organizations to tax themselves. If they earmark money for R&D, the government matches each dollar up to 0.5 per cent of the gross value of the sector. Independent research development corporations representing growers, scientists and government allocate funds for projects.

Canada and the United States also have checkoffs for various commodities. But Pardey said often the money is used for marketing and promotion. The Australian model requires funds to go to R&D. The preponderance of research goes toward improving farm productivity, he said. [email protected]

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Theslowdown inproductionis non-trivial.”

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