Human innovation to feed the world

December 10, 2013


December 10, 2013

Sir Gordon Conway

Professor for international development

In addition to his current role, Gordon Conway is also Director of Agriculture for Impact focusing on European support of agricultural development in Africa. From 2005-2009 he was Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department for International Development. Previously he was President of The Rockefeller Foundation and Vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2004 and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2007 and then made Knight Commander of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George in 2005. Mr Conway was recently President of the Royal Geographical Society.

With global population expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050 the world faces unprecedented demands on its resources - not least water, biodiversity and land. Add to this the likely impact of climate change, and the challenge of feeding a world where some 870 million people are already chronically hungry appears a difficult one.

Governments, NGOs, academia and the private sector are searching for long-term sustainable solutions to global food insecurity and future resource scarcity.  One solution, first proposed by Jules Pretty in the 1990s, and backed by the Montpellier Panel, a high-level group of European and African experts in the fields of agriculture, trade, policy, and global development, is sustainable intensification. At its heart sustainable intensification is about producing more food, more efficiently.

Achieving global food security will not be possible if food is produced at the expense of other natural resources such as water and soil. Instead we need to find ways of maximising both agricultural output and the health of the environments and ecosystems upon which farming relies.

Sustainable intensification is, at its core, about balancing the trade-offs between short-term gains and long-term sustainability. This is a shift in thinking that is not going to be easy but one that members of the Montpellier Panel think is achievable. A large part of their optimism results from historical evidence of human ingenuity in the face of challenges, as well as from the ground-breaking technologies and innovations being developed today.

While much can be achieved by using existing knowledge and technologies, the scale of the challenges we face will need innovation. In a new Montpellier Panel briefing paper, Innovation for Sustainable Intensification in Africa, we emphasise the importance of innovation to drive sustainable intensification and to overcome Africa’s hunger and development issues in general. As an example, a study by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture found that agricultural research in sub-Saharan Africa yields an estimated aggregate rate of return of as much as 55%. This same research also reduces the number of poor people by 2.3 million each year in the region, with about half of this impact originating from international agricultural research conducted by the CGIAR.

Since sustainable intensification is about reducing trade-offs and maximising benefits across economic, environmental and societal objectives we need to redesign our innovation systems to aid multidisciplinary and collaborative research.

Technologies, ideas and processes must offer multiple benefits: strengthening resilience; increasing natural capital; increasing household productivity; reducing environmental impact; and minimising greenhouse gas emissions.

This is a shift from the traditional single objective approach of research and will require benefits, trade-offs and costs to be identified from the outset. Multiple partners from civil society, public and private sectors will need to work together towards a shared vision using a combination of approaches, be they agro-ecological, genetic or socio-economic.

Lastly, innovation systems can and should operate at multiple scales, whether by farmers themselves, through national markets or in international policy. Taking innovations to multiple scales should be a priority, and central to this is greater engagement by research and industry groups with farmers, the ultimate users of innovation.

Conservation agriculture, a system of crop farming based on minimum soil disturbance, permanent organic soil cover and diversified crop rotations, is a successful example of an innovation that satisfies multiple goals, involves multiple partners and is being taken to scale across many countries. Research from 286 projects in 57 developing countries found an average increase in crop yield of 79%. Conservation agriculture has also been found to build soil carbon and fertility, increase carbon sequestration, reduce water run-off and lower labour requirements.

Innovation systems are becoming more global, more holistic and more diverse, but shrugging off the traditional ways of doing research will take time, effort, vision and learning. Many questions need to be answered, questions which, as the briefing paper shows, form the basis of a future research agenda. If sustainable intensification is to succeed, we need to know:

  • how to achieve both short-term gains and long-term sustainability simultaneously;
  • how to design policies that can support integrated innovation systems;
  • how to plan for multiple benefits;
  • how to  build in resilience from the outset without yield penalty; and
  • how to go to multiple scales

While we may not have all the answers yet, innovation systems are moving in the right direction. The Feeding the World 2014 conference, at which the author of this piece will be speaking, provides the ideal opportunity for thought leaders and decision makers to tackle some of these questions, to set the future innovation agenda, and to coordinate action for more sustainable global food production.

Professor Sir Gordon Conway, is Director of Agriculture for Impact, Imperial College London and Chair of the Montpellier Panel. He and Katy Wilson co-authored ‘One Billion Hungry: can we feed the world’ published by Cornell University Press in 2012.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited (EIU) or any other member of The Economist Group. The Economist Group (including the EIU) cannot accept any responsibility or liability for reliance by any person on this article or any of the information, opinions or conclusions set out in the article.

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