The global agriculture system faces a rapidly growing challenge: in the coming decades it must feed a substantially larger population amidst an increasingly volatile and shifting climate. Already, global food systems are being affected by extreme weather events, including historic droughts, which are leading to higher food prices and greater food insecurity. The negative impacts of global climate change on agriculture are only expected to get worse. Ensuring an expanding, stable, and secure food supply capable of meeting the challenges of climate change requires more resilient crops and agricultural production systems than we currently possess in today’s world. This is without a doubt the chief agricultural challenge of our time.
Unfortunately, agricultural resilience policies are plagued by an inadequate paradigm that places undue confidence in the sufficiency of existing technologies to meet new challenges, and a fear of the uncertainty surrounding new technologies. Some have argued that existing technologies are adequate to face the challenge if uniformly diffused and applied, and if global socioeconomic obstacles like poverty are overcome. To be sure, diffusing the best available technologies is important, and the socioeconomic challenges we face are significant. Efforts to deal with them should be encouraged and expedited. But even in the most ideal circumstances, diffusing existing agricultural technologies and practices is not enough to address the challenges we will face in the coming decades.
In light of this, we propose several solutions. In particular, we argue that the critical, game-changing solutions for building global agricultural resilience will come only from expanding the innovation and adoption of next-generation crops and agricultural practices. We need new and improved crop varieties that use less water, deliver increased yields and improved nutrition, and have built-in means for repelling insect pests, resisting disease, and withstanding extreme heat, cold, rain and drought. Agriculture will need every existing tool in the box, as well as the development of new ones, including the use of demonstrably safe crops improved through modern biotechnology, commonly referred to as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or transgenics.
This report explains why advanced agricultural innovation, including the development and deployment of next-generation transgenics, is an essential response to the growing challenges of food security and climate change. We begin by highlighting the nature and magnitude of the likely impacts of climate change on agricultural production systems. We then discuss the potential of advanced agricultural innovation, including the development and deployment of advanced crop varieties, to meet these challenges by creating improved crops with greater resilience to climate variability. Finally, we outline three policies that should be implemented on global and domestic scales in order to create a more robust agricultural innovation ecosystem capable of producing the next-generation crop technologies needed to feed a rapidly growing population on a warming planet. These policies are:
- Boost global public investment in advanced agriculture innovation. Over time, private investments in agricultural innovation have steadily increased, while public investments have stagnated or declined. As a result, the character of agriculture research has shifted to near-term product development, while largely ignoring the early-stage research capable of generating new technology platforms and breakthroughs in next-generation biotechnology. Governments, transnational institutions, and nonprofits need to reverse this trend. For instance, the U.S. Congress should triple its current investments in agricultural research and development (R&D) from roughly $5 billion to $15 billion per year. This would reverse a decades-long decline in public investments to support breakthroughs in genomics, biotechnology, and agronomics that the private sector will not deliver quickly enough on its own—if at all. Delivering these breakthroughs and encouraging continued incremental innovations is critical to boosting crop productivity and climate resilience as well as offering U.S. biotech companies future competitive advantage in a warming world.
- Governments worldwide should reform GMO regulations. There is no agricultural policy change that could be adopted with more positive impacts and fewer downsides than drastically reducing regulations applied to crops improved through biotechnology. Foods derived from crops or animals improved through biotechnology have been subjected to more extensive scrutiny than any