The achievements and shortcomings of science in meeting food needs, and the challenges ahead. Towards a second Green Revolution? The impact of modern agricultural practices. The promises of biotechnology.
Chair: Ismail Serageldin Chairman,
Session co-ordinator: Maria J. Zimmermann
Sustainable Development Department, FAO, Italy
Achievements and shortcomings of agriculture
Marc Van Montagu
The development of Agrobacterium-mediated gene transfer to plants ushered in a whole new area of plant research.
It has made possible for the first time, the study of plant growth and development and plant physiology, plant stress, and plant ecology at the molecular level. This means that we are now able to identify and isolate the key genes underlying these processes. Genetic engineering of these genes is now providing us with valuable information on the regulation of their expression, the nature of the enzymes or structural proteins they encode, and the character of the signalling molecules that regulate their response. This gene engineering also allows us to elucidate biochemical pathways and, together with the advances in analytical organic chemistry, to characterise the solutes and volatiles that regulate plant life.
The novel technologies developed by molecular biologists also make it possible to obtain efficient DNA fingerprints of not only all plants but also of plant pathogens and symbionts. This opens a whole new research field called molecular ecology, which will be particularly valuable for studies of the tropical forest. It is indeed vital to show that, thanks to the emergence of such molecular tools, it will soon be possible to demonstrate the social and economic value of the tropical forest. This is a prerequisite for convincing developing countries not to continue to destroy it, but rather to try exploit the huge potential for the benefit of the indigenous population.
These improved fingerprint technologies are also essential for the plant breeders.
They allow us to generate molecular markers that make it possible to analyse the outcome of crosses at the seedling state, an important time and cost saving step. Such molecular marker assisted breeding will not only be highly beneficial for introgressing many new traits in our present crop plants, but more importantly, these techniques will open many "poor mans crops" for selection and improvement. A shortcoming of our present tropical agriculture is the lack of breeding efforts around crops typical for subsistance farmers.
The ever increasing world population requires special efforts to be central around food and feed production and particularly around the development of a less polluting agriculture. The continuous expansion in fundamental research is now generating data that indicates that such once seemingly faraway distant goals are now technically possible.
Indeed, it was predicted that it would be. From the early days, applications directed towards agriculture, food and feed improvement have been attempted and the results have been highly successful. Engineering of novel traits in elite cultivars of corn, soybean, cotton and rape seeds have led to high-performance novel crops, which have passed all the agronomic, food hazard and environmental safety tests. These crops have been commercialised, since 1996, and last year, 30 million ha were grown, mostly in the US, Canada, Argentina and China.
The major chemical industries have decided to re-establish themselves as "life sciences" companies, because they have realised that our planet with its ever-expanding population cannot support additional polluting production schemes. Industry has understood the potential power of plant gene engineering, not only to develop a less polluting and better performing agriculture, but also to engineer solutions to existing environmental problems and to try and develop a sustainable industry.
Society has a major problem with the sudden appearance of novel products and with the industrialisation of agriculture. In Europe, the sincere wish for profound democracy has led to major confrontations between public opinion and the agrochemical industry. For scientists, the challenging task of education to regain the societys confidence remains.Scientific challenges in feeding the world
through sustainable agriculture
Feeding a world of ten billion people in the twenty-first century presents many challenges to scientists. Natural scientists will need to focus on developing new knowledge for making optimal use of limiting natural resources: soil, water and nutrients. They must also bring the benefits of powerful new genetic engineering and breeding technologies to all those involved in agriculture -- including the many poor farmers growing indigenous crops on marginal lands. Success in these endeavors will also require a major effort from social scientists; for farmers everywhere, it is critical to get the right incentive structures in place. The market forces in our global economy are effective in increasing agriculture productivity in many parts of the world. But getting the benefits of science to the most needy in developing countries will require public sector activities focused on meeting regionally specific needs.
Young scientists in the United States have little or no knowledge of the needs of the developing world. Many of them are idealistic individuals who could be excited by the important challenges involved in feeding the world. How can we take advantage of our revolutionary new communication tools to bridge the enormous gap that now exists between scientists in the industrialized world and the needs of a farmer in rural Africa for new knowledge and inputs? The 16 laboratories around the world that constitute the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (the CGIAR) are publicly funded scientific organizations whose vision is to "contribute to food security and poverty eradication through research promoting sustainable agricultural development, based on the environmentally sound management of natural resources." Some ideas on how the CGIAR can improve its bridging functions will be presented in my talk.
Mobilising society for food security and related issues