In Sydney, a call for paradigm shift on agriculture

By Lisa Cornish 22 September 2015

A farmer prepares his field for the planting season in Malawi. The growing population, climate change, disease, conflict and lack of political support are some of the factors that could create food insecurity in the future. Photo by: Stephen Morrison / DfAT / CC BY

This week, Sydney is host to 600 wheat specialists from 70 countries who are gathering to discuss the future of the wheat farming industry and long-term goals for food security.

Opening with a keynote from 2014 World Food Prize winner, Sanjaya Rajaram, the conference immediately highlighted the global challenges we face to feed a growing population. With predictions from the United Nations suggesting the world’s population could be as large as 10.9 billion by 2050, Rajaram said wheat production will need to increase 70 percent to meet the population’s food and nutrition needs and highlighted the technological advances that can see this happen.

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“The population is continually rising and this directly affects the food security,” Rajaram told Devex. “It’s not that we don’t produce a lot — we do. But there are millions more mouths to feed every year.”

According to wheat experts in attendance, the growing population is not the only threat to food security. Despite advances in science and technological capabilities, climate change, disease, conflict and political support are all playing important roles in creating insecurity for the future.

Climate change

There is no doubt among researchers that increasing temperatures are affecting food security.

“We have identified wheat is sensitive to increasing temperatures,” Hans Braun, director of CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program, told Devex.

“In Mexico we have seen for every degree Celsius the temperature increases, wheat yield goes down by 10 percent. Last year nights were 3 percent warmer than two years ago; there has been a significant reduction in yield.”

The science to combat the problems of climate on wheat is, so far, proving to be successful. Matthew Reynolds from CIMMYT has been working on developing wheat that is tolerant to heat and drought while increasing yield.

“There is still obviously a long way to go, but there is proof of concept,” he told Devex.

“We’ve been making good progress based on international trials, and we’re pretty hopeful that this process will be successful.”

But ongoing support and funding will be needed to keep pushing ahead with these already evident successes.

Disease

Professor Philip Pardey, an economist with the University of Minnesota, presented findings from his research on the impact of pest and diseases on crops such as wheat and corn. With a focus on three fungi that impact wheat, stem rust, leaf rust and stripe rust, Pardey estimated that a staggering 63 percent of the entire world’s wheat crop were susceptible to these three diseases.

“That does not mean that they get hit every year,” he told Devex.

“But if the spores get transported by wind, land on the wheat crop and the climate it suitable to the propagation of the disease, this will impact yield.”

Pardey says 15 million metric tons of wheat a year on average is lost to this disease. Stripe rust in particular is increasingly spreading throughout the world, with it becoming tolerant to heat.

“It used to be found only in cooler, wetter regions, but this is changing,” Pardey said, warning that it was critical to continue funding research to monitor disease impacting crops to keep one step ahead. “Even if you can solve the problem for a disease for a period of time, mother nature keeps inventing around the mechanisms scientists breed into these crops.”

Conflict

Mahmous Solh, director-general of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, until recently conducted agricultural research in Syria. He, firsthand, has seen the impact of conflict on wheat crops and food security.

“The impact of conflict is tremendous,” Solh told Devex.

“In Syria, the country used to be self-sufficient in major food crops. Now that production is down to 40 percent or less of what it used to be.”

With ICARDA working in many post-conflict countries, including Afghanistan, it’s able to see the political, economic and social impact food security has on populations.

“The mass migration we are seeing now from Syria is mainly happening because of food and security,” Solh said. “The inability of families to secure food for their children is forcing them to leave.”

Where is the leadership?

Wheat experts at the conference were unanimous in their call for greater political support to fund and prioritize wheat and agricultural research to combat the growing problem of food security.

“There has been a disinvestment of public dollars going into research and development,” Pardey told Devex.

“You can get away with that for a while, but if you do that for a decade you eat into the stock of knowledge which is what we are seeing happening throughout the world.”

It can take seven to 10 years to build a variety of wheat that is resistant to environmental conditions and disease, but by the end of this cycle, researchers are struggling to maintain appropriate funding to keep programs going.

Braun told Devex there needs to be a dramatic shift in the way agriculture and research was seen by the world’s politicians. “What policymakers and investors need to understand is that agriculture is not a problem — it’s the solution to our future,” he said.

“This is a perception that really needs to be changing among our policymakers. Agriculture is not just about food production but maintaining the environment. We argue that the potential of wheat should go up 80 percent because then you could reduce the area devoted to wheat and free marginal land for shrubs or trees and give some of this land back before we completely erode it.”

Despite scenarios from Lloyds Finance predicting El Niño may soon bring a critical food security crisis, similar to what was seen in in 2008 to 2010, politicians and governments have been quick to forget the problems of the past.

“The last few years were very good harvests for all crops,” Braun told Devex. “Five years ago is already history and, unfortunately, governments need to be reminded again with a new food crisis or price explosions to make sure there is a continued investment.”

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About the author

Cornish img
Lisa Cornish@lisa_cornish

Lisa Cornish is a freelance data journalist based in Canberra, Australia. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane and online through news.com.au. Lisa has recently been awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.


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