The role of research in food and nutrition security

A major new report spells out what science can, and can’t, do to help provide nutritious food for all. Co-author and GFS Champion Tim Benton provides an inside eye on the Milan Expo 2015.

Tim Benton

The first ‘Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations’ famously took place at Crystal Palace in 1851. It spawned a regular series, of which the 99th Universal Exposition will take place in 2015 in Milan, Italy, on the theme Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life

‘Expos’ have always been major international events, as well as trumpet-blowing for each nation’s industries; they serve as a forum for dialogue between governments, industry and the public.

Cover image of 'The role of research in global food and nutrition security' reportEU
A new 32-page report has been released to coincide with Milan Expo 2015.

As readers of this blog will know, “Feeding the Planet” or ‘food security’ is hugely important. Food production involves more land, water and people than other areas of human endeavour. Access to food determines health and influences national security and patterns of human movement.

To focus attention on the importance of food security, the European Commission recruited an expert group across Europe to develop a discussion document about where research can make a difference to the manifold challenges thrown up by Feeding the Planet.

With the help of a small group, I led on the writing. I was initially asked to ‘jot down a few hundred words’ in June. After 12 drafts, and literally hundreds of sets of comments, we finished with a document of 12,000 words in January. This document will be launched at an event in Milan on May 8th, but is available now (link in picture caption above).

The breadth of the challenge

Research is hugely important for ensuring food security, but the challenges – and the research needs – are not simply about how to produce more food. The report groups the key research needs into seven inter-related themes, each of which is important for developing a sustainable agri-foodsystem (see figure 1).

In a sense, food security is a ‘meta-challenge’ as is it seeks to provide sufficient safe, nutritious, food for a healthy life for all involves coping with climate change, competition for land and water and issues around trade, equity and access.

Diagram showing seven key research themes for food security researchEU
Figure 1: Seven key research themes for food security research

Research is necessary but not sufficient

Whilst research has a central role in creating new knowledge to tackle the challenges, it is part of the process not the whole. There is a virtuous cycle that strategic research should contribute to. First, a ‘look ahead’ horizon-scanning exercise should help set the research agenda. Research should then create the opportunities for social and technological innovation, which ultimately should lead to social and economic change.

But in the meantime, as the world has changed, so perhaps have the key research questions, requiring a new round of horizon-scanning (see figure 2).

Each of these steps is important: research needs to create knowledge that can be used for innovations to address important questions of the time.

Equally, innovations can rarely emerge without relying on fundamental research ‘upstream’ – understanding insect physiology is needed to develop pesticides, for example.

In our time of austerity, where innovation is needed for economic growth, protecting the fundamental research budget is especially important, but especially at such times fundamental research can be seen as a luxury.

Diagram showing research needs change over timeEU
Figure 2: Research needs change over time.

Working together

The challenges in figure 1 are so diverse and extensive, it is impossible for any one nation is address each fully within an affordable research base. This fundamental constraint then needs to drive two further considerations: how can different countries work together, through coordination and alignment, and therefore achieve the global outcomes we need?

The Milan Expo’s theme is Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.

By coordinating strategy and research prioritising, it is possible to identify common priorities, such as an aim to increase the efficiency of nutrient usage in agriculture. These common priorities can be addressed by creating joint or aligned research efforts to maximise the value of any research investment, and to ensure the money is spent fruitfully, irrespective of artificial geographic, institutional and disciplinary boundaries.

The added value of alignment can arise by sharing ideas, sharing data or infrastructure. For example, the Global Food Security (GFS) programme is playing a role in leading an OECD-sponsored project ‘TempAg’ with an aim of linking researchers, research infrastructure and data across the temperate world to share ideas, approaches and allow much greater replication than a single country can provide.

Revving against the limits

Research clearly plays a central role in providing the raw material for innovation leading to social and economic change. However the institutional infrastructure to connect the researchers to the societal challenges on one side, and research knowledge to users on the other, also really matters.

Research is of less value if the ‘wrong questions’ are answered, or research is not made full use of; so funders should fully coordinate fully along the innovation pathway to set the agenda and get research into use. This is something we are learning well in the UK, with the Agri-Tech strategy and GFS partner InnovateUK filling important roles connecting ‘upstream research’ and ‘downstream use’.

Research has to be targeted and coordinated as well as relevant and useful.

Our GFS programme is held up internationally as an exemplar of within-country coordination and alignment; we bring diverse public institutions together to complement, coordinate and align at many levels. GFS’s systems analyses not only shape the thinking of the GFS partners, but, as the Expo document indicates, are shaping the agenda more broadly.

The challenge remains that complex systems often need to be divided into manageable chunks. But dividing creates divisions, and divisions create barriers. Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work is needed more than ever to cross such boundaries; and coordination between institutions here and across the world is needed to ensure each of us contributes our piece of the jigsaw to the global big picture.

Add your comment, and follow Tim on Twitter: @timgbenton.

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.

4 thoughts on “The role of research in food and nutrition security

  1. The report to which you refer, provides a useful framework for examining research needs and improving coordination and efficiency.
    I was, however, surprised – and, indeed, alarmed – by the sentence in the report’s Executive Summary that reads: “Additionally, reducing the environmental impact of agriculture, including greenhouse gas emissions, MAY IN FUTURE (my capitals) require new and innovative farming methods.” Surely there is a hugely urgent need to put in place policies to accelerate the necessary shift to truly sustainable food production (and consumption) systems, backed by a surge in publicly funded R&D. While the private sector has invested hugely in the research behind input-intensive agriculture, there is no incentive for industry to engagé in research on farming systems that, for the most part, are implicitly lower in their demands on purchased farm inputs.

    Was this a slip of the pen or a consensus view of
    the committee that prepared the report?

  2. Thanks for your comment Andrew.

    My personal view echoes your sentiments.

    I think the report is explicit and implicit that things need to be different in future, and the 7 themes addressed together should underpin some major transformations. The words you quote shouldn’t be taken to mean “business as usual for the time being” but more the recognition that “business as usual” will not be sufficient for long.

    Best wishes


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