How research can help solve global food crisis

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Guy Riba, the deputy director of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), highlights the many challenges the world will have to meet by 2050 if it wants to feed its nine-billion inhabitants without destroying its environment. He spoke to EURACTIV ahead of a major conference by the French Presidency today (3 July) in Parliament.

Guy Riba is deputy director general of the Institut national de la recherche agronomique (INRA). He is in charge of scientific programmes, resources and evaluation. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

What are the challenges to which we need to respond if we are to feed nine billion people sustainably in 2050?

The first challenge is the land use competition between rural and urban areas. The second problem is the adaptation to climate change and within it in particular water resources. We already have big problems with both access to water resources and their quality. Other problems include how to get sufficient foodstuffs and how to be sustainable. 

What are the research challenges that need to be addressed to respond to these challenges?

To do this we can’t only focus on agronomic research. If we want to resolve agronomic problems, the key is to have an integrated approach to all problems. Currently, the scientific community is divided and works separately. Some are working on agricultural research, others on urban problems or energy supply problems. There are no common up-to-date databases and we don’t have sufficient modelling capacities to try to establish different scenarios on a global, inter-continental or regional scale. Therefore, I encourage the establishment of facilities that put together all databases. In such platforms, different research groups can then engage in agronomy, urban or energy while sharing the data and working together to optimise the land use in different countries. 

So it is not only about research in agriculture, but about cross-sectoral research.

Regarding adaptation to climate change and water use, the challenge is quite the same, as there is competition between urban population and farmers on water. This is already the case at least in some European countries, Turkey, India, China and Australia. 

So the question is to know how to manage those conflicts and how to reduce water use in agriculture.

As for sustainable foodstuffs, it is very important to diversify agriculture, much more so than is done today. First, we need to diversify genetic resources, thus diversify the species we use and, secondly, diversify the genetic bases within each species.

We need to cultivate new plants. Species that are not used today have to be used. And the species currently used only on a small scale need to be used more. Secondly, in order to create new varieties, we need to use a much larger genetic diversity within the species.

What is interesting is that with molecular biology we are today able to discriminate, within the genetic resources we have, the types we want. This is really new and interesting. For example, in the Mediterranean region you have different packages of genetic resources of wheat – each country or region has its own type of wheat. We are currently spending a lot of money to preserve these packages whereas we could try to combine some of the interesting traits of these packages and create new varieties by using molecular markers. If you have a very large base of genetic variety, the varieties will be more easily adaptable and more robust to climate changes. We can do that both for crops but also for tomatoes and other vegetables. 

We can diversify species and this is very important for agronomy, but also for forests as we will have many changes in geographic distribution of forest species. So, we need to plant different species and within species different varieties to save forest for the coming centuries.

What solution does genetic modification (GM) represent in creating new varieties?

We must use GMOs when we are not able to develop new traits without this approach. If we can do with another way, we will do it the other way. But we already know that some traits cannot be modified if we do not use transgenesis. So transgeneis is a necessary tool but not the panacea.

Are there any other challenges?

Another point is to improve diagnosis of diseases and pests as well as of water, soil and air quality. Currently, we are losing a lot of time and money on identifying the problems, when it occurs somewhere – when, for example, a new plant disease occurs somewhere, we need to identify its strain and to know how to fight against it. Therefore, we need a much more reactive diagnosis system. 

For that, we need to increase the use of modern tools mainly from biotechnology and, secondly, we need to train and organise services in charge of that at national and international levels. For example, we need to increase financial support for the European plant protection organisation to make it more reactive.

We have different approaches – plant breeding, diagnosis and so on – that we now need to integrate in a new cropping system. A cropping system is to integrate new innovations. All advances made through specific approaches, for example, genetics, agronomy, pathology, technology and even economy and sociology, need to be integrated into a single system and geneticians, sociologists and so on need to work around the same table at the same speed.

Today we are losing a lot of time because some very interesting innovations are not integrated. Fpr example, what is the point in increasing the yield of some crops in one region, but the farmer organisation is not improved, nor the infrastructure to get the crops to market?

Would this integrated approach have to be developed at international, European or regional level?

We would need to start mainly from local level. Then, progressively, you can go from local to regional, national level. Not all specialists need to be present at local level, but if a new species is introduced to a certain area, all its consequences need to be thought through and a new supply chain established. 

So, we need agro-ecology and for it to be efficient it needs to be completely integrated. Including until human nutrition. I mean if you produce new vegetables and people don’t like them, then you are losing your money.

What is the most important method we should invest in research to ensure sustainable agriculture and food security – mechanical, chemical, genetic or information technology? 

We can’t push for one method rather than another one. My message is that we need to be reasonably integrated. That means that we need to push genetics to breed new plants, you need to push pathology to reduce disease, we need to improve technology to reduce losses of many materials produced. It would be nonsense to push one method rather than another one. We need to push integration because it is not always a question of research. 

You can resolve key limiting factors through research, but sometimes it is only a question of transfer. Sometimes you can find the solution for a problem in another place and carry it from there to your problematic area, so it is not only a question of research but transfer. But to be accepted by everyone, in particular by farmers, you need to involve them from the start of a programme. You can’t do a package of innovations and transfer it to farmers just saying take it, it’s good for you. It does not work like that. Farmers need to be involved from the beginning.

Is something being done in Europe to develop the agro-ecology approach?

We are trying to do it in France and elsewhere in Europe. It is not something very new. In France we are developing very large integrated production programmes. We have, for example, one on vegetables and we are developing another on crops, cereals. We hope within INRA to be able to develop within near future this approach to different supply chains – fruit, animal production and so on. What we are doing corresponds to the MIT approaches. M for multidisciplinary, I for interdisciplinary and T for transdisciplinary. 

A multidisciplinary approach means resolving your problem via genticians, agronomists, pathologist, economists, and so on. An interdisciplinary approach means that the economist must discuss with geneticians for example and geneticians with economists. At the end of this discussion, the equation selected by the economist or by the genetician is different from what they thought at the beginning. 

The transdisciplinary approach means that you can’t solve a problem only between researchers. We must mix from the beginning researchers and stakeholders – farmers, private firms and so on.

Can meat be part of sustainable food production?

Meat production is a big problem. As soon as society becomes more prosperous, it eats more meat. First it diversifies the vegetable consumption and then people start eating more meat. The problem is that the environmental cost of meat production is much higher. 

Here it comes to the land use competition where the problem is not biofuels but meat production. If you produce only one head of cattle per hectare – just imagine how many hectares of pasture we need. That will be the key problem. The problem is the surface yield productivity of animal production. But in parallel, we need animal production. 

What should be the short and long term priorities for EU in agricultural research?

First is to have better knowledge of the natural potential already in existence. We have a lot of species and varieties in nature and we must explore them much more. For that, we don’t need any complicated research, but just exploration of natural potential. 

Secondly, we need to create innovation that end-users can adopt. We are already spending a lot of money in research groups to clone different genes, to produce new methodologies for something and nobody uses them because it is not known or adapted to end-users. You can’t consider first invention and then transfer. We need to conceive invention and transfer at the same time. We also need international programmes to create critical mass to face very big issues. We have not enough support at international level. The scientific community is too fragmented.

The last point is that we must increase our capacity to conceive and anticipate the future and for this we need much more foresight. But we must share them. A lot of foresights are being produced but they just finish at some bookshelf. We need to do foresights and keep them under consideration for when we conceive our programmes.

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