Feeding the Planet in a Warming World

The global agriculture system faces a rapidly growing challenge that must be met with resilience and innovation.

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 other agricultural product in human history. Humans and livestock have consumed billions upon billions of meals derived wholly or in part from these improved agricultural varieties for nearly two decades, which have sustained a strong record of safety for humans and the environment. Yet these innovative products, which are developed and brought to market with precise, predictable and safe techniques, are subjected to regulatory obstacles that dwarf those faced by older products and obsolete technologies, some with genuinely problematic legacies.

Authoritative bodies have repeatedly examined these issues and concluded that the regulatory burdens on advanced biotechnology are not justified by science, data, or experience. These misunderstandings must be challenged, and scientific evidence must be restored to its primacy as the basis for making regulatory decisions about food safety 

  • Create or strengthen institutions to serve as Centers of Innovation Excellence. Feeding the planet requires a wide array of productive agricultural systems. Climate change is impacting these systems in a variety of ways. Worldwide cooperation to quickly advance and deploy innovative and adaptable agricultural technologies is therefore essential. Just as in the “Green Revolution,” agricultural stakeholders around the world must work together to speed the development and deployment of next-generation crop technologies.

The challenges facing agriculture over the coming decades are so great and complex that they must be met by organizations with commensurate strength and the ability to solve complex problems. Numerous existing organizations at the national and international level have some of the capabilities needed, but none have all that are required. All of these organizations need additional resources to bring their capabilities to the required level and to enable the global networking and cooperative, multidisciplinary approaches that are necessary. National agricultural research systems in a number of countries, colleges and universities, the private sector, and international consortia like the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) must all be strengthened and expanded to engage global innovation communities cooperatively and in a realistic way to face the challenges that loom.