Reaping the benefits: Science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture.

21 October 2009

The Royal Society has published the report of a landmark study examining the contribution of the biological sciences to food crop production.  The study was conducted by a working group chaired by Sir David Baulcombe FRS. The group included experts on agriculture, international development, conservation biology and plant science.

Food security is one of this century's key global challenges. Producing enough food for the increasing global population must be done in the face of changing consumption patterns, the impacts of climate change and the growing scarcity of water and land. Crop production methods must also sustain the environment, preserve natural resources and support livelihoods of farmers and rural populations around the world. This report discusses the need for a sustainable intensification' of global agriculture in which yields are increased without adverse environmental impact and without the cultivation of more land.

The report begins by setting out the challenges to food crop production. It then goes on to examine in detail the various technologies that might be used to enhance production, with the conclusion that a diversity of approaches are needed. Due to the scale of the challenge, no technology should be ruled out, and different strategies may need to be employed in different regions and circumstances. Finally, consideration is given to the consequences and complications of food crop innovation.

The recommendations of the report include the following:

  • Research Councils UK (RCUK) should develop a cross-council grand challenge' on global food crop security as a priority. This needs to secure at least £2 billion over 10 years to make a substantial difference.
  • RCUK should increase support for ecosystem-based approaches, agronomy and the related sciences that underpin improved crop and soil management.
  • Universities should work with funding bodies to reverse the decline in subjects relevant to a sustainable intensification of food crop production, such as agronomy, plant physiology, pathology and general botany, soil science, environmental microbiology, weed science and entomology.