Agricultural development

The greatest challenge is adequate nutrition for both farm and non-farm families alike, with more sustainable, nutrient-rich and affordable crops. Even farm families often far below threshold incomes for access to adequate nutrition. Both farm and non-farm families need more income, affordable food and healthier diets. While approximately 800 million people today are undernourished (meaning that they consume an inadequate number of calories per day), more than half of the world’s population is malnourished (meaning that they lack accessibility to essential micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals required for human health) (FAO, 2013). Today, food insecure populations are concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia but are found everywhere. Although the proportion of people living in extreme poverty (on less than $1.25 a day) has decreased steadily over the past twenty years, these gains from rapid advances in GDP have yet to reach sufficiently the poorest of the poor. Indeed, in some instances, increases in population growth are faster than real gross domestic product (GDP) growth (Bazuin et al., 2011). The world’s population is expected to swell to 9 or 10 billion within the next thirty to forty years, and much of this increase is predicted to take place in poorer countries (International Food Policy Research Institute, 2014).

The situation is confounded by climate change. Many of the world’s poor lead precarious rural livelihoods at perpetual risk from environmental shocks such as floods or drought. Rising sea levels may increase salinization of coastal agricultural areas, and rising temperatures and CO2 levels will affect growth cycles and the types of crops that can be grown in a given area. These environmental shocks are predicted to become more dramatic and frequent with global warming in the coming century (Global Nutrition Report, 2014). It has been suggested by the FAO that agricultural productivity must double by 2050 to feed the world adequately. Last year’s UN’s Sustainable Development Goals set out to address global poverty and hunger, with the mindset that lowering the number of people who live in extreme poverty (http://sustainable development.un.org) would enable people to improve their nutritional status by purchasing more fruits and vegetables, and thus a broader spectrum of micronutrients.

India presents an example of the dilemmas of technical change in agriculture. Like other parts of Asia, India has known famine.  The ‘Green Revolution ’ in India, as elsewhere, relied on new crop technology in which high-yielding dwarf crop varieties, developed by plant biologist Norman Borlaug and colleagues, were introduced (Long et al., 2015). These new crop varieties – primarily wheat and rice — were enhanced by synthetic inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides, as well as modern irrigation practices. Today India maintains quite large buffer stocks and has become a major exporter of cereal crops (Aswath et al., 2016). These food-crop improvement strategies of the ‘green’ revolution were widely accepted in ways the ‘gene’ revolution involving ‘GMOs’ were not (Harriss and Stewart 2015). Both India and China have experienced major successes in use of biotechnology in cotton, but have to date been reluctant to allow commercialization of food crops because of social and political resistance (Herring and Paarlberg 2016). Will genome editing face similar obstacles or present a new world of developmental opportunities in food production quite different from those facing ‘GMOs’?

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