Next-generation technologies and effective outreach key to food system transformation

With the global population topping 7.7 billion and the effects of climate change becoming increasingly apparent, farmers need innovations that enable them to sustainably produce more nutritious food. The good news is that a growing number of next-generation technologies provide opportunities for the world to meet those challenges, though their success will depend on the capacities of people to use them.

An event at the World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue, in Des Moines, Iowa, highlighted some of the transformative innovations available to enable climate change adaptation, and what is needed to achieve their potential. Organized by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, the session brought together scientists from leading research institutions to discuss climate-smart, sustainable innovations.

Mario Herrero, Chief Research Scientist with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), outlined a recent analysis that identified ‘top 10’ technologies for transforming food systems under climate change, which range from the production of fish and livestock feed from microalgae or seaweed to early warning systems for crop pest and diseases. He noted that ensuring nutrition security while implementing sustainable, climate-resilient agriculture will require a combination of intensified production, reduced food waste and shifts in diets.

Jan Low, International Potato Center Principal Scientist and 2016 World Food Prize Laureate, noted the CIP breeders are harnessing next generation technologies to breed more nutritious, climate-resilient crop varieties faster but added that the effectiveness of innovations to achieve food security and nutrition improvements depends on understanding the needs and limitations of farmers.

“We talk a lot about technology, and it can help us accomplish a lot, but there is still a great need to connect to farmers,” Low said. “We need to learn how to reach millions of farmers efficiently.” As part of CIP’s efforts to get nutritious orange-fleshed sweetpotato to millions of African families, researchers have studied farmer and consumer perceptions and cultural barriers that affect adoption and consumption of the crop. Nevertheless, Low noted that, “We still have a lot to learn about behavioral change.”

Bram Govaerts, Director of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center’s Integrated Development Program, highlighted the potential of big data for powering innovations. He cited the example of the MasAgro program, which collects data from nearly 150,000 farmers in Mexico and uses it to produce decision support tools used by public farmer support programs.

Ruben Echeverria, Director General of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, called upon researchers to pay more attention to policy issues to avoid the regulatory bottlenecks that can prevent innovations from getting to the people for whom they were designed. Despite the challenges, Echeverria said he was optimistic about the number of promising technologies available and the growing consensus on the need to act.

“It took us 30 years to come to agreement about climate change, now we can finally start talking about a cohesive set of solutions,” he said.