A global approach to achieving food security

Last month, 13 developing countries received recognition from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for their progress towards eradicating hunger and improving food security. At the ceremony, the FAO’s director general, José Graziano da Silva, congratulated them for turning political commitment into actions and demonstrating the will to achieve and surpass the millennium development goals.

Achieving food security – that is, guaranteeing that all people have access to sufficient and nutritious food to lead an active and healthy life – is the ultimate goal of the FAO’s work. The organisation’s activities range from creating indexes of agricultural productivity to supporting collaborations between public and private parties. It is also a neutral forum for international discussions and agreements so that global productivity may be increased through sustainable agriculture.

Improving crop productivity around the world requires actions on a number of fronts: political, social, economic and scientific. Small farmers in developing countries must be supported and their contribution to food security acknowledged. We need to enhance the capacities of breeders, scientists and workers in the seed industry. High-yielding and resistant crop varieties need to be bred. And key traits underlying adaptation to changing environments need to be identified – as is being done here at the John Innes Centre!

This year’s World Food Prize was awarded to Sanjaya Rajaram. His work exemplifies the use of science and breeding to deliver new crop varieties that can impact agricultural productivity. Until his retirement in 2008, Rajaram was director of the wheat breeding programme at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (Cimmyt) in Mexico. Cimmyt forms part of an international network called the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Together, the 15 centres focus on the conservation, research and breeding of economically and socially important crops, such as wheat, rice and maize.

Rajaram and his team’s work has resulted in the release of 480 wheat varieties in more than 50 countries, leading to a 200m tonne increase in global wheat production. Much of this work has involved creating varieties for use in regions with a severe abiotic stresses, such as drought and soil acidity. Utilising marginal areas like this has a huge impact both locally and globally by increasing the land area available for growing crops to feed the world’s increasing population.

An interesting aspect of the work of Cimmyt and other CGIAR centres is how they are connected to other research centres, national and international organisations, breeders and farmers. Their work reaches almost all spheres of the agricultural production chain, and this integrated endeavour distinguishes their work from other international efforts.

More than half of all past World Food Prize winners have been CGIAR researchers, and much of this can be explained by the multidisciplinary model that the group’s work follows. The message is clear: the more integrated national and international efforts for food security are, the higher the likelihood that this important goal will be achieved in the near future.

As for us at the John Innes Centre, we are doing our part towards this goal by generating knowledge, training the scientists and breeders of the future and unlocking nature’s diversity. It was at JIC that I came into contact with the impact that plant conservation and breeding can have on global agriculture, and the idea of contributing towards this, even if in a small manner, is a driving force that is quite difficult to resist.

Gabi is an MSc student at the John Innes Centre.

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