Meme-ufactured.

I constructed and posted a rather provocative meme the other day.

starvation

quote source: @Toby_Bruce

The meme had an image.  It was graphic, shocking and sad. A photo of a starving child.

I shared the meme publicly on Twitter and privately with some of my colleagues, family and friends through email and Facebook.  The meme resonated in different ways with different people. Responses came quickly, both publicly and privately. Some found the meme thought-provoking and effective:

“I don’t see anything wrong with it. There is a very real human cost to the delay of Golden Rice and some people need to be strongly reminded of that. As the saying goes, a picture says a thousand words.”

“I don’t see how using existing images without turning profit is wrong. Because it makes [people] uneasy to see what is daily life for half the world?”

Others, however, were shocked and offended:

“The photo was horrifying. It eclipsed the message. I didn’t see it. What did it say?”

“I saw your meme and it kind of bothered me. I agree with so much of what you have to say, but I don’t think anyone should use the specter of poverty to make a point.”

“I’m concerned with the objectification of poor people by first world people. I don’t care what the message is. [The meme] is offensive and exploitive to people who don’t have voices.” 

Others were:

“I’m personally not a fan of using these types of images for anything but e.g. specifically raising starvation awareness. If anyone can misconstrue the message, they will play the exploitation card.”

“It is shocking, sad and evocative.  In the worst case it is a polar equivalent to the visuals used by the anti-biotech interests.”

memeufactured

Click on image to view Twitter dialogue

Humans think in pictures. While words can go in one ear and out the other, images ‘stick.’ This is why memes are such effective visual communication tools in this day and age of decreasing attention spans.  Memes come in the form of images or short videos and they can spread rapidly via the Internet.  We see memes cycling through our social media feeds every day.

I learned a few things about memes through this interesting exercise:

  1. These kind of communication tools can be effective, if properly executed.
  2. Proper execution requires a pre-emptive well-thought-out overarching strategy with defined goals.
  3. Each individual meme needs to be structured around a well-articulated message.
  4. That message has to be paired with an appropriate image.
  5. If the image and message don’t connect in a meaningful way or if the image is “over the top” meaning may be lost.

Where do we draw those lines? What is “over the top”? Did I use rhetoric and an emotionally-charged image to frame an ethical issue with my meme? Am I just another example where ideology led a good person with good intentions to do a wicked thing?

Communicating in this information-rich world is tough. To make our communications more effective, (and I quote Made To Stick (by Heath and Heath)), “…we need to shift our thinking from What information do I need to convey? to What questions do I want my audience to ask?” For any idea (or message) to endure, we must generate interest and curiosity.  Humans are hard-wired to feel things for people, not abstract objects or ideas.

In my blog post of October 28th, I stated that there is no room in well-executed science for provocateurs.  But is there room for a shocking and confrontational blend of images and rhetoric in order to draw First World attention to some of the world’s most dire problems, like hunger? As Steve Savage says in his blog post, Counting the Cost of the Anti-GMO Movement:

“There is a long growing list of environmental and health improvements that “could have been” if the anti-GMO movement hadn’t been so effective… Some are things that could enable poor farmers to produce more local food with less need for inputs or more resistance to environmental stresses.”

Memes (highly controversial and inaccurate ones) continue to be an important tool in the anti-GMO toolbox. In response to that argument, my very good colleague and friend said:

“Cami, why sink to their level? We are smarter than that!” And another said:

“If this meme were to factor into the GMO debate, I think it would derail the discussion completely and not help the cause at all.”

Good points. Both of them. As is this comment by a Twitter friend:

“We need to respond to human suffering with compassion. Memes designed to prove the meme-makers point are not very compassionate.”

Are those of us that are trying to mitigate some of the damage done by the anti-GMO movement – those of us that want to see some the great technologies that we have in the First World move to where they are most needed in the Third World – being exploitative if we use these kind of memes to communicate our messages? If there are ‘boundaries’ that we need to adhere to, what are they? And how can we advocate for things like Golden Rice without using images of children?

Epilogue: I admit, the meme was shocking. A disturbing image combined with a provocative message. I shared it to provoke ‘raw’ responses.  And I got them. Most responses were highly critical. More than half that voiced opposition to the meme were close friends and family members. It would be fair to assume that they were shocked that I constructed it and I shared it as much as they were by the meme itself. 
 
For the record, if this meme had crossed my desktop I probably would never have shared it. I generally share ones with images of the Dos Equis Man with taglines about the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Anyway, this was an interesting exercise and I am grateful for all of you that chimed in. Your feedback was supportive, critical, sometimes loud, often emotionally-charged – but always very insightful.Thank-you.

“10 ‘reasoned’ responses” to “10 reasons we don’t need #GMOs”

You may have run across this article “10 Reasons We Don’t Need GM Foods” on the FoodConsumer website.  It’s been making its rounds on social media (Facebook and Twitter). I would like to address some of the inaccuracies in this article – point by point:

1. GM foods won’t solve the food crisis

Well, surprisingly enough, I agree with this one.  Or at least with the statement: GM foods ALONE won’t solve the food crisis. GM foods and genetically engineered (GE) crops aren’t a silver bullet in resolving problems with food security.  I refer to Mark Lynas (former Greenpeace activist and author) who said in a recent talk he gave at Cornell University:

“[GE/GM] cannot build better roads or chase away corrupt officials. But surely seeds which deliver higher levels of nutrition, which protect the resulting plant against pests without the need for expensive chemical inputs, and which have greater yield resilience in drought years are least worth a try?” Mark Lynas (April 2013)

Hey, I’d say so.  It is important to note that the introduction of GE crops (in particular) has enabled wider adoption of “no-till” farming (see a farmer’s perspective on this).  No-till is a system which conserves soil moisture, prevents erosion, dramatically reduces nutrient and pesticide movement to streams and rivers, and reduces fuel use.  All good, in my opinion.

Did you know that if we still farmed using the inputs and techniques that we did in the 1950s, we would need millions (maybe even billions) more hectares available to produce what we produce today? Advances in plant breeding techniques, introduction of no-till practices, integrated pest management and adoption of genetically engineered crop varieties account for this rise in production.  This translates into higher productivity on less land.  We all win.   

2. GM crops do not increase yield potential

Seriously?! Hmmm.  Well, research suggests differently. The results of meta-analysis (that means a study that analyzed the results from MANY MANY other studies) published in a peer reviewed science journal in 2012 found that organic yields of individual crops were on average 25% percent lower than that of conventional yields.   Productivity in GM crops are purported to be anywhere from 7 – 20% higher than conventional varieties.  And, of course, context matters.  Different soil conditions in different parts of the world may be more or less conducive to a variety of production methods. Again, GE technology and GM crops are not a silver bullet by any means. But genetically engineered crops are an important technology in the food production toolbox. So, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, OK?

3. GM crops increase pesticide use

If that’s the case, then how do you explain this interesting fact? Cotton farmers in India spray heavily to control for pests that damage production. Did you know that the application of pesticides to cotton in India is done by hand? With farmers walking through their small cotton fields using backpack sprayers? The adoption of GM cotton in India has reduced the number of pesticide applications per season by 50%. It is estimated that more than 2 million fewer cases of pesticide poisoning are occurring on an annual basis which saves the Indian government US$14 million (Smyth 2013, Herring 2009).

Want a first world perspective on the whole GM and pesticide use issue? Check out Applied Mythology‘s “The Muddled Debate on Pesticides and GM Crops.” Pesticide use is lower. Combine that with other economic and environmental benefits (refer to #1 and #2)… it’s a good thing.

4. There are better ways to feed the world

Let’s re-phrase this so that it’s a bit more accurate: “There are “many” ways to feed the world”

Absolutely.  A million of them.  Food security is a complex problem that requires a multi-faceted approach in resolving the political and economic issues that come with feeding a growing world population.  Again, GE and GM crops are very important technologies in the food production toolbox…

I mentioned the “baby” and the “bathwater” already, didn’t I?

5. Other farm technologies are more successful

Farming is complex. I don’t know ANY farmer who is not up against making a hundred decisions in a given day.  Just ask a producer (grain, livestock, organic, conventional): Ryan Goodman, Brian Scott, Emily Zweber, Carrie Mess… Again, this is not an all or nothing scenario. Many factors go into the strategic management at the farm level.  And its never as simple as saying that GMO is ‘bad’ and organic is ‘good’ or vice versa. It’s more than just picking a production method.

6. GM foods have not been shown to be safe to eat

I hear this a lot and I have to remind everyone that nothing is 100% safe. Nothing. NO food. You can test organic, conventional and GM for the next 500 years and there will never ever be “absolute proof” that a food produced a certain way is 100% safe. That’s not how things roll here in the ‘real world’. The food value chain is long and involves lots of actors.  Lots can happen. Take for example the Maple Leaf Foods listeria crisis in 2008 (23 confirmed deaths). Then there was the XL Foods e.coli incident in 2012 where 18+ people were taken ill when they ingested tainted meat. And the anti-GM folks get a bit hot under the collar when I mention this one:  almost 4000 people were affected and 53 died from a rare strain of e.coli in sprouts that were produced on an organic farm in Germany in 2011.

There have been some food-related tragedies.  But there is no documented evidence of harm to human health or deaths from consumption of GM foods since they were introduced to the market two decades ago. None. Here are TWO studies (US and EU – and there are more) that attest to the safety of GM foods (NRC 2004, EC 2010, more here (scroll down)). GE crops or GMOs have been the most heavily tested food products in the history of our regulatory system.

7. People don’t want GM foods – so they’re hidden in animal feed

I wonder who thought this little gem up.  GM foods aren’t “hidden.” And they are certainly not “hidden” in animal feed.  Livestock producers use corn and soybean as a base for animal feed, all over the world (including the the European Union where GE soybeans are exported from the US and Brazil for animal consumption). As of 2012, there has been a 100-fold increase in the planting of biotech crops since 1996.  In the US alone, between 67% and 94% of all acreage attributed to corn, soybean, cotton and canola are genetically engineered. Nothing is “hidden” here… genetically engineered crops are ‘front and centre’ in world agriculture production.  Biotechnology is the fastest adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture (James 2012).

8. GM crops are a long-term economic disaster for farmers

Wow. That sounds scary.  Yes, GM seed prices are higher than that of conventional seeds.  But farmers that utilize the technology do so because they get higher yields and extract higher margins.  Just ask Brian Scott: “I can get a premium price for the soybeans we grow to be used as seed by other farmers next year.” If you ask Brian, he is neither “dependent” on the technology nor is he a “slave to ‘big ag'”.   Rather he (and other producers like him) are making economic decisions at the farm level based on input costs and projected market outcomes.  And don’t kid yourself. These folks don’t make these decisions at the expense of the land.  They *care* about the environment (environmental benefits: see #1).  They are not about to willfully destroy land that has been farmed by them and their ancestors – and potentially their children and children’s children – for generations.

9. GM and non-GM cannot co-exist

There’s that word again – – – “contamination”.  It’s an ugly word with ugly connotations.  Did you know that we already operate in a segregated agriculture and food system?  If you want, you can choose to eat organic.  It’s all labeled in your grocery store.  Organics standards were adopted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in 2009 in Canada.  These standards are enforced by organic inspectors through accredited certification bodies all over the country. Contamination? Organic farm and crop certification is based on the production methods used, NOT on the purity of the end product. So, nothing would happen to an organic grower or his produce if (in the highly unlikely event that) trace amounts of some other variety were found (BTW – there is no testing in organic crops). Organic growers will never lose their organic certification (unless, of course, they are shown to be intentionally growing ‘non-organic’ produce or crops and sending them to market as ‘organic’).

10. We can’t trust GM companies

Don’t believe everything you read. Syngenta, Dow, Bayer, Monsanto and other ‘big ag’ companies are just that – companies. They are profit-motivated and generate revenues to cover the costs of doing business and to provide a return for their shareholders. These companies, and others like Apple or MicroSoft, make no secret of that. And isn’t that the tenet of any business – big or small? Companies step into the space where the public sector can’t and won’t – they bring the products downstream to the market. Did you know that the time that it takes to put a product through the regulatory system has almost tripled in the last 20 years (13 years and $140 million US)? And just to clarify, the regulatory system is no more robust than it ever was. But the political pressures that have been placed on governments by interest groups have forced a ‘slow down’ in the regulatory process. This means more costs. And, right now the only companies that have the resources to navigate the costly and complex regulatory processes are big ag.

The whole “David and Goliath” thing (small defenseless farmer vs big ag company) gets wayyyy overblown in the anti-GM rhetoric.  Like I said before, don’t believe everything you read.  Like ’em or not, ‘big ag’ companies are the only ones that can take these technologies to the marketplace where society can extract value from them.  Who else? Universities and public research institutes? I don’t think so.  At least, that’s not where I want *my* tax dollar going. These multinational ag businesses invest the dollars in the research and product development and they have a right to protect that investment for a limited period of time. It’s how our patent system works – for EVERYONE.

Want to know more about patents and plants? Check here.

– – – –

We live in a privileged world; one where food is plentiful and varied and one that affords us this seemingly ‘aesthetic’ relationship with what and how we consume. We have turned our backs on the functionality of food and entered into this realm of ‘food snobbery’ where the ‘food police or elites‘ (as Jayson Lusk refers to them) seem to rule the world.

On a final note: For every 10 reasons cited suggesting that we don’t need GMOs, I can list 100 or more of why we *do* need genetically engineered crops and GM food.

rant/off

A breath of fresh, logical air…”Does starvation loom? – No.”

January 14, 2011

I love Twitter!  Especially when my social network shares gems like this.

Author Matt Ridley has written several books on evolution, genetics and society (check out the list on Amazon at: http://amzn.to/eBVDkm). Sorry, Matt.  I have to admit, I haven’t read any of your books… but my interest has been piqued and I have had added several of the tomes to my growing ‘to read’ list.  

Anyway, back to the ‘gem’… A link to Matt’s latest blog entry entitled “Feeding of the nine billion” (http://bit.ly/hZv477) was circulated through Twitter today (via #scio11).  This is a GREAT piece!  In it, this ‘Rational Optimist’ addresses/challenges (what I would call in some cases) the hype around the issues of food security and a growing population, food prices and world ag production.  :

Here are a few of my favourite @mattwridley illustrative quotes from Ridley’s blog entry (which, by the way, was also posted in The Times, January 14, 2011):

FOOD SECURITY / POPULATION GROWTH:

“…the rate of [population] growth is decelerating. World population is now growing at just over 1% a year, down from roughly 2% in the 1960s. The actual number of people added to the world population each year has been dropping for more than 20 years.”

“…the UN estimates that the population will most probably peak at 9.2 billion in about 2075 before starting a slow decline. Population quadrupled in the twentieth century; it will not even double in this.”

FOOD PRICES:

“…if you take inflation into account. Food prices are up in real terms since 2000, but they are still about 30% below the level in 1980 and 85% down since 1900. In terms of wages, the decline has been even steeper.”

“Despite a doubling of the population, global food production per head is 30% up on what it was in the 1950s…Besides, the current spike in food prices is caused by prosperity, not desperation.”

WORLD AG PRODUCTION:

“Farm yields have been marching upwards for decades and will continue to do so. In the past sixty years, the total harvest of the big three crops that provide the bulk of our calories – maize, wheat and rice – has trebled, yet the acreage planted has hardly changed.”

“The more yields increase, the more land can be set aside from food production for reforestation and national parks. This is happening already. National parks are expanding steadily…”

“Don’t forget another factor. Carbon dioxide levels in the air are rising. CO2 is a raw material that plants use to make sugars, which is why many greenhouse owners pump CO2 over their crops to boost production. The results of more than 600 experiments with rice, wheat and soybeans exposed to the sort of carbon dioxide levels expected by 2050 (an extra 300 parts per million) all show remarkably consistent 30+% increases in yield.”

FINAL @mattwridley THOUGHT:

“For all these reasons food production will probably continue to rise faster than population in the decades ahead. There will still be price spikes caused by bad weather or foolish policies, and there will be challenges: policies that encourage innovation cannot be taken for granted. Yet so long as trade is free and innovation flourishes, by 2050 it is easily possible that we can feed nine billion people with more and better food from less land.”

And for all you humanitarian types out there, you are going to love this!  Ridley is giving roughly half of the advance royalty received from his book The Rational Optimist (http://www.rationaloptimist.com/) to three charities: Farm Africa, The International Policy Network and AgBioWorldFoundation.  These are agencies/organizations that are helping those in need, especially in Africa, to trade, farm and innovate.  

The Matt Ridley Equation:  Prolific, insightful writer + Charitable = Awesomesauce!  ;o) 

 

McHughen and Wager address misconceptions around ag biotech

December 9, 2010

Here is a great article to follow up from what transpired on the Dr. Oz  show this week.  Alan McHughen and Robert Wager co-author an article in the December 2010 issue of New Biotechnology entitled “Popular misconceptions: agricultural biotechnology”.  I have attached the article here and I think that the Open Source Gods will shine favourably down on me for that (even if the journal doesn’t).  Without going into detail, the article explains and refutes some of the most popular misconceptions around agricultural biotechnology.

Dr. Pam Ronald was a guest on the Oz episode which covered the issue of GE tech and food earlier this week.  Dr. Ronald did a fantastic job of representing the science of biotechnology but unfortunately she had difficulty competing with the sexy soundbytes of anti-GE sentiments parlayed by “Seeds of Deception” author J. Smith.  If that wasn’t enough, I was frustrated by Dr. Oz’s apparent bias against GE technology and GMO food – and I quote:

“…and this organic cereal contains no genetically modified seeds or products so that is an advantage…”

??!!!

Back to the McHughen/Wager article…. the authors state:

“Popular misconceptions might be considered amusing if they are held only by a small ‘fringe’ group. But sometimes the misinformation and fear can become infectious and pathogenic, instigating bad public policy, with substantial negative consequences to everyone.”

I think that Dr. Oz should have a read, don’t you? (see article attached below)

I refer to some other online sources relating to the Dr. Oz show and Dr. Ronald’s appearance on it:

Dr.Ronald’s follow up to her appearance on the show: http://scienceblogs.com/tomorrowstable/

Want some GOOD, BALANCED information? Here are some sources: bioforitifed,org, ucbiotech.org and academicsreview.org

mchughen_etal_popular_misconceptions_about_ag_biotech.pdf
Download this file

Issue of New Biotechnology – Transgenic Plant for Food Security

Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Agbiotech

November 30, 2010

The official scientific journal of the European Federation of Biotechnology (EFB) has published the proceedings of the Study Week on ‘Transgenic Plants for Food Security in the Context of Development’ held under the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at its headquarters in the Casina Pio IV in the Vatican from 15 to 19 May 2009. The Conference was attended by public scientists and was organized by Ingo Potrykus, ‘father’ of the Golden Rice, and Klaus Ammann (managing Editor).

See: http://www.ask-force.org/web/Vatican-PAS-Studyweek-Elsevier-publ-20101130/PAS-Studyweek-NBT-20101130.pdf

The summary conclusions of the Study Week are very supportive of agriculture biotechnology to improve sustainable development:

1. More than 1 billion of the world population of 6.8 billion people are currently undernourished, a condition that urgently requires the development of new agricultural systems and technologies.

 2. The expected addition of 2-2.5 billion people to reach a total of approximately 9 billion people by 2050 adds urgency to this problem.

3. The predicted consequences of climate change and associated decreases in the availability of water for agriculture will also affect our ability to feed the increased world population.

4. Agriculture as currently practised is unsustainable, evidenced by the massive loss of topsoil and unacceptably high applications of pesticides throughout most of the world. 

5. The appropriate application of GE and other modern molecular techniques in agriculture is contributing toward addressing some of these challenges.

6. There is nothing intrinsic about the use of GE technologies for crop improvement that would cause the plants themselves or the resulting food products to be unsafe.

7. The scientific community should be responsible for research and development (R&D) leading to advances in agricultural productivity, and should also endeavour to see that the benefits associated with such advances accrue to the benefit of the poor as well as to those in developed countries who currently enjoy relatively high standards of living.

8. Special efforts should be made to provide poor farmers in the developing world with access to improved GE crop varieties adapted to their local conditions.

9. Research to develop such improved crops should pay particular attention to local needs and crop varieties and to the capacity of each country to adapt its traditions, social heritage and administrative practices to achieve the successful introduction of GE crops.

The New Biotechnology open source Volume 27, 5, p. 445 – 717

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/18716784

Transgenic Plants for Food Security in the Context of Development

– Proceedings of a Study Week invited by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Vatican City, May 15-19, 2009

A joint publication of the invited participants of the Study Week as an open source Volume of NEW BIOTECHNOLGY of Elsevier and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences

Food security – sufficient nutritious food at all times to live a healthy and productive life – is one of the prime challenges for mankind. On the background of the public debate about the potential contribution from transgenic plants and the interest of the Vatican in the this challenge, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences was inviting an interdisciplinary group of independent public sector scientists, known for their scientific rigor and their engagement in social justice, to analyze the peer- reviewed state of science about transgenic plants and to explore the conditions under which the obvious potential of this technology could be made available in a better way for public good and the poor.

In summary, the program of the study week was designed (a) to present the potential of plant genetic engineering to contribute to food security, (b) to analyze the causes for the obvious exclusion of the public sector and projects from the delivery of public goods and (c) to develop concepts how to improve the situation to the benefit of the poor. The participants represented a wide and interdisciplinary range of scientific disciplines including philosophy, theology, political science, economy, agricultural law, agricultural economics, development economics, intellectual property rights, botany, ecology, plant pathology, evolution, botany, microbiology, agriculture, crop science, biochemistry, molecular biology, biotechnology, food safety, biosafety, and regulation.

Against this background the program of the study week was organized into the following sections,

http://www.ask-force.org/web/Vatican-Studyweek-Elsevier/Summary-Study-Week-Potrykus-2010.pdf

About the organizers and participants:

Prof. Dr. em. Ingo Potrykus ingo@potrykus.ch was the organizer of the study week; Mons. Prof. Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences was inviting the 41 participants to Vatican City. Prof. Dr. em. Klaus Ammann klaus.ammann@ips.unibe.ch was the editor of the proceedings, together with Prof. em. Ingo Potrykus

List of participants including email addresses of the contributors:

http://www.ask-force.org/web/Vatican-Studyweek-Elsevier/Participants-List-english-email.pdf

The program and scientific contributions of the Study Week

Program of the May 2009 meeting with abstracts, invitation by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences

http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_academies/acdscien/2009/booklet_transgenic_34.pdf

Full bibliography (including open source links) of published papers and statements:

http://www.ask-force.org/web/Vatican-PAS-Studyweek-Elsevier-publ-20101130/PAS-Studyweek- NBT-20101130.pdf

This information was sourced through: AgBioView, November 30, 2010

Rayner offers some real talk on food production: Industrial farms are the future #farming #agnerds #ag #food #production

Big agriculture is the only option to stop the world going hungry

Food riots, such as those in Mozambique, could soon be seen here too unless we overhaul the way we produce food

 Jay Rayner, The Observer, Sept 12, 2010

 “If we are to survive the coming food security storm, we will have to embrace unashamedly industrial methods of farming. We need to abandon the mythologies around agriculture, which take the wholesome marketing of high-end food brands at face value – farmer in smock, ear of corn, happy pig – and recognise that farming really is an industry, much like car manufacturing or steel forging, one which always works better on a mass scale, but which can still be managed sustainably.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/sep/12/food-riots-farming

 

How to Feed a Hungry World #hunger #food #FAO

‘Nature’ special issue: How to Feed a Hungry World
– Editorial, Nature, July 29, 2010 v 466, p531-532

Full issue at http://www.nature.com/news/specials/food/index.html
Producing enough food for the world’s population in 2050 will be easy. But doing it at an acceptable cost to the planet will depend on research into everything from high-tech seeds to low-tech farming practices.
With the world’s population expected to grow from 6.8 billion today to 9.1 billion by 2050, a certain Malthusian alarmism has set in: how will all these extra mouths be fed? The world’s population more than doubled from 3 billion between 1961 and 2007, yet agricultural output kept pace and current projections (see page 546) suggest it will continue to do so. Admittedly, climate change adds a large degree of uncertainty to projections of agricultural output, but that just underlines the importance of monitoring and research to refine those predictions. That aside, in the words of one official at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the task of feeding the world’s population in 2050 in itself seems easily possible.

Easy, that is, if the world brings into play swathes of extra land, spreads still more fertilizers and pesticides, and further depletes already scarce groundwater supplies. But clearing hundreds of millions of hectares of wildlands most of the land that would be brought into use is in Latin America and Africa while increasing today’s brand of resource-intensive, environmentally destructive agriculture is a poor option. Therein lies the real challenge in the coming decades: how to expand agricultural output massively without increasing by much the amount of land used.

What is needed is a second green revolution an approach that Britain’s Royal Society aptly describes as the sustainable intensification of global agriculture. Such a revolution will require a wholesale realignment of priorities in agricultural research. There is an urgent need for new crop varieties that offer higher yields but use less water, fertilizers or other inputs created, for example, through long-neglected research on modifying roots (see page 552) and for crops that are more resistant to drought, heat, submersion and pests. Equally crucial is lower-tech research into basics such as crop rotation, mixed farming of animals and plants on smallholder farms, soil management and curbing waste. (Between one-quarter and one-third of the food produced worldwide is lost or spoiled.)

Developing nations could score substantial gains in productivity by making better use of modern technologies and practices. But that requires money: the FAO estimates that to meet the 2050 challenge, investment throughout the agricultural chain in the developing world must double to US$83 billion a year. Most of that money needs to go towards improving agricultural infrastructure, from production to storage and processing. In Africa, the lack of roads also hampers agricultural productivity, making it expensive and difficult for farmers to get synthetic fertilizers. And research agendas need to be focused on the needs of the poorest and most resource-limited countries, where the majority of the world’s population lives and where population growth over the next decades will be greatest. Above all, reinventing farming requires a multidisciplinary approach that involves not just biologists, agronomists and farmers, but also ecologists, policy-makers and social scientists.

To their credit, the world’s agricultural scientists are embracing such a broad view. In March, for example, they came together at the first Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development in Montpellier, France, to begin working out how to realign research agendas to help meet the needs of farmers in poorer nations. But these plans will not bear fruit unless they get considerably more support from policy-makers and funders.

The growth in public agricultural-research spending peaked in the 1970s and has been withering ever since. Today it is largely flat in rich nations and is actually decreasing in some countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where food needs are among the greatest. The big exceptions are China, where spending has been exponential over the past decade, and, to a lesser extent, India and Brazil. These three countries seem set to become the key suppliers of relevant science and technology to poorer countries. But rich countries have a responsibility too, and calls by scientists for large increases in public spending on agricultural research that is more directly relevant to the developing world are more than justified.

The private sector also has an important part to play. In the past, agribiotechnology companies have focused mostly on the lucrative agriculture markets in rich countries, where private-sector research accounts for more than half of all agricultural research. Recently, however, they have begun to engage in publicprivate partnerships to generate crops that meet the needs of poorer countries. This move mirrors the emergence more than a decade ago of public partnerships with drug companies to tackle a similar market failure: the development of drugs and vaccines for neglected diseases. As such, it is welcome, and should be greatly expanded (see page 548).

Genetically modified (GM) crops are an important part of the sustainable agriculture toolkit, alongside traditional breeding techniques. But they are not a panacea for world hunger, despite many assertions to the contrary by their proponents. In practice, the first generation of GM crops has been largely irrelevant to poor countries. Overstating these benefits can only increase public distrust of GM organisms, as it plays to concerns about the perceived privatization and monopolization of agriculture, and a focus on profits.

Nor are science and technology by themselves a panacea for world hunger. Poverty, not lack of food production, is the root cause. The world currently has more than enough food, but some 1 billion people still go hungry because they cannot afford to pay for it. The 2008 food crisis, which pushed around 100 million people into hunger, was not so much a result of a food shortage as of a market volatility with causes going far beyond supply and demand that sent prices through the roof and sparked riots in several countries. Economics can hit food supply in other ways. The countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development pay subsidies to their farmers that total some US$1 billion a day. This makes it very difficult for farmers in developing nations to gain a foothold in world markets.

Nonetheless, research can have a decisive impact by enabling sustainable and productive agriculture a proven recipe (as is treating neglected diseases) for creating a virtuous circle that lifts communities out of poverty.

Listen to podcast at http://www.nature.com/nature/podcast/index-2010-07-29.html