Green Revolution traditions have seen a number of scientific accomplishments for global food security and rural farming communities across the world.
Global agricultural research leaders have accomplished many technological breakthroughs for food brands including the improved crop varieties that now represent more than 50% of maize and wheat production in the developing world. One project, working alongside partners, conducts over 1,000 field days and training courses each year through field offices in 15 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.
Shifting the playing field for how researchers engage with their counterparts in scientific institutions and private companies across the globe has shown inspirational advantages of this approach working across cultures, disciplines, and sectors through new strategic partnerships. International organizations like the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, and other research centers in the Global South have flourished recently.
In Kenya, a Maize Lethal Necrosis Screening Facility was recently launched to prevent this devastating disease from spreading across Africa.
The GENNOVATE project has also built a new understanding about the gender norms that can impede women from participating in agricultural innovation.
Yet, looking back, efforts were so busy solving crop yield constraints and other important problems of the past, that we didn’t fully appreciate the magnitude of the compounding and escalating shocks that are coming our way.
Several times this year, small farms in the Pacific Northwest have been deluged by atmospheric rivers of rain that defy the historic record. Last summer, they suffered through punishing heat events of up to 50 degrees Celsius at 46 degrees north latitude.
Further south, California is undergoing the worst drought in 1,200 years. It has dried up reservoirs and threatens the viability of agriculture in California’s central valleys and, possibly, in much of the western U.S.
With most people more concerned about prices at the gas pump than taking reasonable steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we are failing to adequately focus on implementing steps to avert disaster.
The people who grow the billions of tons of food that sustain our planet of 8 billion people are struggling with the unenviable task of maintaining and increasing food production despite a climate driven wild by skyrocketing greenhouse gas levels in our atmosphere.
So, the playing field for agricultural research must shift. Now, scientists need to focus on strategies for maximizing production efficiency for businesses, yield and nutritional quality that ensure food security today and into the future. They must also build resilience and make a major contribution to sequestering greenhouse gases.
In this regard, agriculture must be given incentives to mitigate climate change by encouraging practices and technologies that capture carbon in plants and soils.
Luckily, there is tremendous potential in the agricultural research pipeline.
For example, we can use transformative technologies like CRISPR and artificial intelligence to more widely test gene functions and rapidly incorporate improved traits into crop varieties. We may even be able to enhance photosynthesis in our C3 staple crops, like soybean and wheat, with the more efficient photosynthetic capabilities of C4 plants, like corn.
Already today, we have evidence-based solutions that could be more widely deployed like growing heat-tolerant and drought-tolerant crops. Also, with the right design, crop insurance can be a powerful risk management tool to stabilize farm incomes and agricultural regions, including in the developing world, as our weather becomes more variable and extreme.
A growing mountain of evidence informs us that we will be ever more impacted by the existential threat of climate change. A very challenging future is rapidly approaching and we must move as quickly as possible if we are to preempt large-scale famines, widespread human suffering, forced migration, social breakdown, and catastrophic loss of biodiversity.
The research community, the agriculture sector, and humanity as a whole need to address the future now.
Will we rise up to the challenge in time? So far, our efforts are not adequate. Yet, we should be optimistic that new technologies and lifestyle changes, encouraged by enlightened leadership and thoughtful policies, can bring the climate of our planet back into balance.
Tom Lumpkin is a Wine Grape Farmer and former Director General of International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT)