R&D investment critical for food security

Countries need to invest in long-term agricultural research and development if we are to create a food secure world. That was the message from the United States Government’s chief advisor on the topic to the Crawford Fund Conference in Canberra earlier this month.

U.S. Special Envoy on Global Food Security, Cary Fowler, is keenly aware of the short-term political nature of his appointment – made directly by the President of the day and subject to change at the whim of whomever occupies the White House.

With just 13 months until the next U.S. Presidential election, time is not on his side, but he’s determined to use his position to enact enduring change to the way we approach and fund agricultural R&D.

“If we’re going to have chance of creating a food secure world we’re going to have to prioritise agricultural research – business as usual isn’t going to cut it,” Dr Fowler said.

“Agricultural R&D is the comparative advantage that countries like Australia and the U.S. have in this world.

“And yet in the U.S., on an inflation-adjusted basis, our public investment is back where it was 50 years ago.”

Similarly, in Australia, R&D expenditure as a percentage of GDP has fallen from 1.8 per cent in 2019-2020 to 1.68 per cent in 2021-2022 – well short of the Federal Government’s stated ambition of three per cent.

This inadequate, and often short-term, investment is happening against a backdrop of a rapidly warming climate, deepening the urgency to find a new way of achieving transformational change in the way we grow and distribute food.

In the eight years since he last addressed the Crawford Fund, Dr Fowler said the impact of climate on food insecurity had escalated sharply, at a rate beyond what he had expected in such a short time.

“July 2023 was the 533rd consecutive month in which the global average temperature for the month exceeded the 20th century average for that month.

“533 consecutive months of above average temperatures. I don’t know anything in life that happens 533 times by coincidence. Something is changing.”

He warned against complacency in the global community about the profound and extensive impact of climate change on agricultural production.

“If we’re going to provide food security in a changing climate we need good soil and adapted crops.

“If you look at crops you know excessive heat affects every part of the plant in every part of the growing season, from roots to flowers.

“We will need to adapt every part of the plant for every part of the growing season, and we’re going to have to do that for every crop.”

To this end, in his role with the U.S. Department of State, Dr Fowler is leading the Department’s Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils, which aims to foster more resilient food systems, with an initial focus on the African continent. VACS seeks to boost agricultural productivity and nutrition by developing diverse, climate-resilient crop varieties and building healthy soils.

While in Canberra, Dr Fowler also made time to visit CEAT where we were able to learn more about VACS, and also share the strong commonality in purpose of what we are both trying to achieve.

For more, you can watch Dr Fowler’s full address to the Crawford Fund.

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