Participation People

Towards sustainable food security

A new agenda for agricultural research

Prepared by the Research and Technology Development Service (SDRR)
FAO Research, Extension and Training Division

A MORE PRODUCTIVE AGRICULTURE is vital to food security and poverty alleviation. With the world's population expected to rise by almost 90 million a year over the next decade, increased food production will have to be provided through higher productivity of existing resources. The scope for expanding cultivable land is extremely limited and increased population pressure and urbanization will result in greater competition for resources currently used by agriculture.

Agricultural research will have to focus on production technologies that maximize the benefits of natural resources while protecting and restoring those resources for future use. Research must also address the needs of the poor, who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, particularly in low potential areas where productivity increases will be more difficult to achieve and the management of scarce natural resources is more critical.

The impressive contribution of science and technology to meeting food needs in the past was the result of investment in agricultural research. Future progress will depend on continued or increased investment in order to face new and broader challenges. Research must provide technologies to maintain the momentum of previous advances and to raise production even higher. But it must do so while conserving the resources upon which agriculture depends and protecting the natural environment from detrimental effects associated with agricultural intensification. Development of low-cost technologies is also essential to increase incomes and employment of rural poor.

Increases in food production need to be achieved at low food prices - a large number of urban poor and a high percentage of rural poor derive their incomes from non-agricultural sources and spend a large portion of their income on food. This calls for cost-reducing technological improvements that are environmentally sustainable. Without increased research to improve the efficiency of land and water use, the productivity of major food crops is likely to fall, prices will rise and the poorest segments of society would suffer.

Recent developments offer opportunities for technological and policy changes that could have a wide impact on rural and urban poverty and food security. They include:

Setting the research agenda

To capitalize on these new developments - and to increase the impact of agricultural science - the research agenda must be clearly defined. A combination of market reforms, trade liberalization, greater concern for resource and environmental sustainability, and a more active private sector are placing new demands on research priorities in both developed and developing countries. The scientific community is being called upon to broaden its research agenda to give greater attention to poverty alleviation, environmental and resource management, biodiversity preservation, and policy analysis.

The challenges which confront agricultural research and determine the global research agenda can be summarized in three questions:

In the past, the major research impacts have been made through varietal improvements. In the future, varietal improvements must continue to emphasise increased productivity potential and resistance to pests and abiotic stress. New biotechnologies hold promise of accelerating and improving the efficiency of traditional breeding techniques. Other areas that emerge as particularly important for this agenda include crop and natural resource management to improve input use efficiency, protect natural resources and develop more sustainable production systems. Policy research needs to be pursued both at national and international level to identify and prioritize research agendas and to educate policy makers to the importance of agricultural research in solving national problems of food security and poverty.


Recent advances in the biological sciences have significant implications for the agricultural research agenda. Biotechnology, particularly the genetic engineering of plants and animals to meet specific needs, holds much potential for meeting the challenges of increasing productivity and conserving natural resources. Plants and animals that use water more efficiently, grow in highly adverse conditions, resist pests and diseases and utilize fewer inputs have enormous potential to contribute to the sustainability of agricultural production systems.

The engineering of biological control agents also has wide applicability to agricultural production constraints. However, the research agenda must also address areas of concern with biotechnology. Biosafety of engineered organisms is one and must be approached cautiously with appropriate scientific analysis of the types of risks these organisms pose. Intellectual property rights and rights of access to and ownership of genetic resources are other key issues to be addressed. They raise political questions that need to be resolved to maximize the potential benefits of biotechnology in agricultural research.

Natural resource management

The environmental costs of increasing agricultural productivity must now be addressed through increased research on the management of natural resources - soil, water, plants and animals - for agricultural use. Effective soil and water management practices are critical to the future sustainability of food production. If the productivity of irrigated agriculture is to increase, more efficient management strategies for both soil and water will be needed. Increasing water supplies through storage or movement is not a likely possibility. As urban and industrial demand for water increases, the need for water use efficiency in agriculture will become critical, as will the need to reduce any potential contamination of water supplies by agricultural production. Research is needed to improve irrigation and to develop technology to protect and conserve soil and water. Effective management technologies and strategies for increased resource-use efficiency must be developed.

Biological resources similarly present an expanded scope for research. High-yielding plant varieties and animal breeds played significant roles in past productivity increases and will continue to do so in the future. However, biological diversity, which provides the genetic variability necessary to develop new varieties and breeds, is declining at an alarming rate. This decline threatens the availability of germplasm needed to solve future productivity, environmental, disease and pest problems. Much of this diversity is located in farmers' fields and pastures in the form of land races and native breeds. The research agenda must address issues of appropriate technologies for conservation, maintenance, and utilization of these resources as well as those of related wild species.

However, the agenda must go well beyond that and address a wider range of interactions, both positive and negative, between biodiversity and agricultural practices. This includes:

Policy analysis

Results of policy research should educate the public, as well as policy makers, to the consequences of inappropriate price policies that encourage inefficient use of inputs - e.g. overuse of subsidized irrigation water and fertilizers - and that result in unsustainable cropping systems, such as mono-cropping encouraged by high support prices. Agricultural policy research should address real or perceived conflicts between agricultural and environmental issues.

Given that observed practices are the result of many decisions taken by numerous farm households, policy research must incorporate a thorough understanding of decisions taken at the household level, requiring the collection of large data sets. In addition, policy analysis research conducted in an international framework will enable policy makers in developing countries to compare the effects of alternative polices. International research centres are well positioned to facilitate cross-country collaborations in such policy research.

Socio-economic research

Extensive socio-economic research is needed to understand the interaction and interdependence of households with the natural resources. Population pressure and a lack of adequate agricultural technologies, among other factors, are major forces reducing the ability of the poor to support themselves from their natural resource base. Agricultural research must involve clients whose collective behaviour affects the sustainability of the natural resources of the environment.

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