Reinventing agricultural research : Changing context and moving targets

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Future food security for the rapidly increasing human population is at stake because farmers need to produce more food on less land and with less water and energy. Natural resources will be less and less available for agriculture due to economic development, which diverts these resources to non-agricultural uses. In many parts of the world, soil productivity is declining or agriculture is banned to marginal areas. Moreover, changes in diets in countries with the largest populations, given their booming economies, will increase the need for meat, fruit and vegetables, resulting in decreasing production of calories per unit of land. Future security of the food production will therefore depend on acceleration of yield gains for the major food crops at rates well above the historical trend of the past 50 years. Agronomists have to make that happen with a shrinking research budget, while their license to investigate and educate is increasingly questioned and their main clients (the farmers) have lost most of their political clout almost all over the world. Moreover, their specific expertise is not highly valued by modern donors. Are agronomists becoming a rare species at the verge of extinction or a dying breed? This contribution illustrates five areas where agronomists can excel and can rightfully claim their share of research funds necessary to realize the rapid and continuous increase in productivity efficiency needed to feed the world in a way the western society is used to. First of all, agronomy should play a major role in the allocation and use of natural resources (including land, energy, nutrients, water, biodiversity), to wisely settle competing claims. In particular, agronomists should contribute to the development of a bio-based economy by designing production systems of raw materials that are resource efficient and do not jeopardize food production. Secondly, agricultural research should change landscape management by designing land use systems which capitalize on positive effects of processes acting over long periods and large areas (including co-existence of conventional and organic agriculture, spatial benefits of crop diversity, integration of arable farming and dairy farming). Thirdly, agronomy should contribute to steep increases in the efficiency with which natural resources, especially water and phosphorus, are used, for example by designing highly productive cropping systems with aerobic rice. Fourthly agronomy should play a much more dominant role in the efficient and knowledgeable use of the modern ¿omics¿. Only the agronomists are capable of asking the right questions to the molecular scientists thus making the latter less naïve and more effective. Finally, agronomy should pay much more attention to the reasons why the Western system of development of agricultural knowledge and technology has completely failed to play a role in the poorest continent Africa, despite enormous investments and in contrast to the successes of the Green Revolution in Asia and the Brown Revolution in South America. Agronomists are best equipped to draw the proper lessons from this failure in order to design an appropriate system of joint experimentation through a convergence of science and indigenous knowledge, and thus a democratization of science for those who need it most, i.e. the subsistence farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa. This approach will not only be useful in Africa, but also elsewhere in the world.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationA joint colloquium of the Canadian Society of Animal Science, Canadian Society of Agronomy, Canadian Society of Horticultural Science, Halifax, Nova Scotia, August 1-4, 2006
Place of PublicationHalifax
PublisherCanadian Society of Agronomy
Publication statusPublished - 2006

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    Struik, P. C. (2006). Reinventing agricultural research : Changing context and moving targets. In A joint colloquium of the Canadian Society of Animal Science, Canadian Society of Agronomy, Canadian Society of Horticultural Science, Halifax, Nova Scotia, August 1-4, 2006 (pp. 13-14). Canadian Society of Agronomy.