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
Recent developments offer opportunities for technological and policy changes
that could have a wide impact on rural and urban poverty and food security.
- rapid advances in science, technology and communications at global level
- increased competitive pressures from liberalized domestic policies and
international trade regimes
- substantially expanded - but often underutilized, institutional and
human capacity for science and technology in developing countries
- increased scope for participation of rural communities in the design
and implementation of technologies.
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.
- Can agricultural research provide the technology to maintain or increase
productivity growth to meet the rising global demand for food at declining
- Can technological change in agriculture induce an evolution of rural
economies to provide jobs and incomes for the poor?
- Can these goals be achieved in a manner that protects and enhances the
natural resource base, at a time of growing competition from non-agricultural
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
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
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
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:
- technology to meet the increased needs for food without expanding agriculture
into biodiversity rich areas
- sustainable management technologies for common lands such as range land
- development of agricultural systems which conserve diversity within
the system itself
- developing conservation strategies and knowledge systems based on proper
understanding of needs of households that depend on the ecosystem for survival
and indigenous knowledge of existing resources.
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.
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.