The “green revolution” of the 1960s delivered vast increases in food production, averting famines and political instability across the world. There are now urgent appeals for a second green revolution to make food more sustainable, involving climate-adapted crops (some genetically-modified), healthier soil and reduced chemical inputs. Sadly, incentives on offer for agri-tech firms mean our hopes of achieving such a revolution are under grave threat.
As was the case 50 years ago, those who grow our food are tasked with growing healthy plants in the face of drought, lack of nutrients, pests, and diseases. But this is where the similarity ends. In 2016, climate change is already hitting home, wreaking havoc with patterns of weather and disease. Furthermore, ten billion people will need feeding by 2050, requiring us to produce as much food between now and then as has been produced in the whole of human history.
This isn’t just a technical problem for agricultural scientists. Alongside the challenge of supplying adequate calories in ever harsher environments, we must also tackle some deep-rooted obstacles to a fair and safe food supply.
High-yielding wheat developed at government research institutes in the 1950s and 60s by Nobel-winner Norman Borlaug was distributed across the world – in particular famine-stricken India. CIMMYT
The economic landscape of agricultural research is radically different to that which enabled the first green revolution. Today, it is overwhelmingly driven by an international private sector, whereas in the past government-funded institutes would develop and distribute better crops and farming techniques.
This shift away from state-funded research poses significant risks when government regulation threatens profits, as evidenced by the recent debate over the re-licencing of the herbicide glyphosate. The argument here should be about the trade-off between the weed-killing benefits of a chemical versus possible negative effects on human health and the environment. However, the profitability of glyphosate-containing herbicides and glyphosate-tolerant crop plants is dependent upon its legality. As a result, conflicts of interest between profits and safety are the true drivers of such controversies, leading to industrial-scale lobbying by agri-tech which undermines the potential for EU regulators to make a balanced decision.
Anti-glyphosate protest in Berlin, May 2016. Rainer Jensen / EPA
Of equal concern is the rampant patenting of the biological resources which underlie our food systems. As we obtain more and more information from crop genomes, the scientific process of sharing one’s research should facilitate huge improvements in crop production around the world. Instead, each additional level of biological information has provided a further opportunity for these crops to become ever more exclusive, based on the ability to pay for access rather than a requirement.