Top researchers gather to tuck into global food matters. Tim Benton relishes the chance.

Tim Benton

I have recently returned from a Meeting of the Agricultural Chief Scientists (the ‘MACS’) of the G20, held in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Each time we left the hotel for a venue, I couldn’t get over the security involved in our bus escort which at one stage included 11 or 12 vehicles: motorbikes, police cars, machine-gun mounted jeeps, an army vehicle and an ambulance! And it wasn’t all work, one day’s meeting was held in the grounds of the Jose Cuervo distillery in the town of Tequila, including a fascinating tour involving vision, audio and (of course) taste(s).

The meeting itself consisted of an interesting blend of people.  The official delegations came from ministries of agriculture or from other departments responsible for research or innovation. Others were ’official’ chief scientists; others still were academic representatives (like myself, or the invited Netherland’s representative, the President of Wageningen).  The visitors to the meeting were largely from organisations often with a strong developing world focus (e.g. GFAR, CGIAR), and others blended the developing and developed world (FAO).  This mixture of viewpoints created the grounds for many interesting discussions.

At many points in the discussion the commonality of interests was marked, and there was considerable recognition that there should be a greater linkage of the developing and developed world’s agricultural agenda as the problems we are tacking are truly global, and any one country’s interests encompass elements of both.

Gulf of Mexico

One area that received considerable discussion was the need to broaden the view from ’agriculture’ to include the interaction between the environment and agriculture. The necessity for this is two-fold.

First, the physical form of an organism (plant or animal) is a function of both its genes and the environment in which the organism lives. Climate change is changing the environments experienced at any location, and, as there is some evidence that the distribution of weather events is changing relative to the mean, the implication is that envelopes of suitable climate will not just track pole-wards but may change considerably as extremes become even more extreme.

Thus, for plant breeding programmes, understanding the environment that plants may experience is becoming increasingly important. Without this understanding there is the potential for considerable efforts to be undermined by the fact that physical traits being ‘designed in’ (by conventional breeding or otherwise) may not fit the world in which the plants will need to live.

Second, it is increasingly clear that ’the new agriculture’ requires managing landscapes in an integrated way to provide both the agricultural production that is sorely needed, and also the range of ecosystem services that are required either to support the farmer (e.g. areas for pollinators, or “natural enemies” to live) or that society otherwise values (e.g. clean water, the look of the landscape, the cultural value of biodiversity).

Without thinking about how to manage both these together, we tend to face a range of negative consequences that arise from driving the land too hard for a single goal. For example, there is now evidence that tropical forests act as rain-generators for adjoining agricultural land. Thus, the conversion of forest fragments into agricultural land risks losing not only fibre, fuel, forage, pollination services, and liberating greenhouse gases contributing to climate change, but also the rainfall that is necessary to support the local agriculture. This is why any intensification of agriculture has to be both sustainable and sensitive to the landscape context and the provision of ecosystem services within it.

Do your share

A subgroup of the G20, representing the G8 countries, had a meeting on the need for data sharing and, reflecting the discussions above, the need to go beyond sharing genetic data was emphasised. The need is recognised that we must link genetic, phenotypic and environmental data into common searchable formats.

On my wishlist it would be great to have ‘genetic-up’ search ability of public databases so one can search particular genes, define their function using bioinformatics tools, and predict their phenotypes. However, it would be a huge breakthrough to have ’environment-down’ searchability, so that, for a given geographic location,  one could find define the predicted  environment space, use this to optimise the phenotype to that space and thus estimate what the required genetic architecture may be.

As with integrated, sustainable, agricultural landscapes, the concept of a sustainable healthy diet came up frequently in both the formal and informal discussions. We need to manage the demand, as well as the supply side, in an integrated fashion so we do not concentrate on driving production to meet an unnecessary demand. We should also consider the social dimensions of production, processing and consumption. Many of these messages echo discussions on this blog.

Apart from the work, the meeting was an interesting experience. The opportunities for getting to know the other country representatives were very useful, and it was excellent to discover that many delegations shared a world-view consistent with ours. From the Global Food Security Programme’s perspective, it helped to clarify a number of issues where research will be needed, and also the potential for developing international partnerships to deliver.

About Tim Benton

Tim Benton is GFS Champion and an interdisciplinary researcher working on issues around agriculture-environment interactions. Formerly, he was Research Dean in the Faculty of Biological Sciences, University of Leeds, and Chair of the Africa College Partnership, an interdisciplinary virtual research institute concerned with sustainable agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa. He has worked on the links between farming and biodiversity (and ecosystem services) for many years.

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