Feeding the World — who pays?

Agricultural research The Economist, not noted for its bleed­ing heart lib­eral tend­en­cies, has a spe­cial report in the February 24th issue on feed­ing the world. The print edi­tion asks Should we increase spend­ing on agri­cul­tural research?, and the web­site has an online poll. Unsurprisingly, in both cases, the answer is yes. The report includes an inter­est­ing account of the his­tory of the Broadbalk field at Rothamsted Research station:

The 1.6-hectare (4-acre) Broadbalk field lies in the centre of Rothamsted farm, about 40km (25 miles) north of London. In 1847 the farm’s founder, Sir John Lawes, described its soil as a heavy loam rest­ing on chalk and cap­able of pro­du­cing good wheat when well manured. The 2010 har­vest did not seem to vin­dic­ate his judg­ment. In the centre of the field the wheat is abund­ant, yield­ing 10 tonnes a hec­tare, one of the highest rates in the world for a com­mer­cial crop. But at the west­ern end, near the manor house, it pro­duces only 4 or 5 tonnes a hec­tare; other, spind­lier, plants yield just 1 or 2 tonnes. Broadbalk is no ordin­ary field. The first exper­i­mental crop of winter wheat was sown there in the autumn of 1843, and for the past 166 years the field, part of the Rothamsted Research sta­tion, has been the site of the longest-running con­tinu­ous agri­cul­tural exper­i­ment in the world. Now dif­fer­ent parts of the field are sown using dif­fer­ent prac­tices, mak­ing Broadbalk a micro­cosm of the state of world farming.

Asking for more money for research (at a time when pres­ti­gi­ous insti­tu­tions such as Imperial College are sack­ing plant sci­ent­ists right left and centre) is a no-brainer, but The Economist puts for­ward a com­pel­ling case which gets to the heart of both the sci­entific and eco­nomic issues:

By the 1990s most agri­cul­tural prob­lems seemed to have been solved. Yields were rising, pests appeared under con­trol and fer­til­isers were replen­ish­ing tired soil. The excit­ing areas of research in life sci­ences were no longer plants but things like HIV/AIDS. The end of the era of cheap food has coin­cided with grow­ing con­cern about the pro­spects of feed­ing the world. Around the turn of 2011-12 the global pop­u­la­tion is fore­cast to rise to 7 bil­lion, stir­ring Malthusian fears. The price rises have once again plunged into poverty mil­lions of people who spend more than half their income on food. The num­bers of those below the poverty level of $1.25 a day, which had been fall­ing con­sist­ently in the 1990s, rose sharply in 2007-08. That seems to sug­gest that the world can­not even feed its cur­rent pop­u­la­tion, let alone the 9 bil­lion expec­ted by 2050. Adding fur­ther to the con­cerns is cli­mate change, of which agri­cul­ture is both cause and vic­tim. So how will the world cope in the next four decades?

A.J. Cann, Leicester, UK.

AJ Cann. ORCID 0000-0002-9014-3720

Alan Cann is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Leicester and formerly Internet Consulting Editor for AoB.

1 Response

  1. I’d be inter­ested to know how much the people who think “rich coun­tries should increase spend­ing on agri­cul­tural research” think the rich world actu­ally does spend on agri­cul­tural research. (I know that’s con­vo­luted, but I hope you see what I mean. This would be par­tic­u­larly illu­min­at­ing in light of a sur­vey that showed that Americans are not only appalled at the amount their coun­try spends on aid, but also want it to spend 10 times more. See http://​aid​watch​ers​.com/​2​0​1​0​/​1​2​/​a​m​e​r​i​c​a​n​s​-​a​p​p​a​l​l​e​d​-​a​t​-​h​o​w​-​m​u​c​h​-​w​e​-​s​p​e​n​d​-​o​n​-​a​i​d​-​w​a​n​t​-​t​o​-​s​p​e​n​d​-​1​0​-​t​i​m​e​s​-​m​o​re/.