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Investment in agricultural technology over the past century or so has been intermittent. After the so-called “Green Revolution” at the turn of the 20th century, investment in agricultural innovation dried up. In the mid-1900s, breakthroughs in use of hybrid seeds and mineral fertilization fueled an amazing increase in crop yields, saving over 1 billion people from starvation. Public focus on food security then went quiet for decades, but in recent years there’s been a resurgence of concern in the international community, given accelerated population growth in a stressed planet facing resource scarcity and climate change. The social unrest caused by the increase of food prices in 2008 underscored the critical need to bring agriculture and food systems up to speed.

Agricultural innovation is needed to enable production of not only more, but also better-quality and more nutritious, food. Crops need to become stronger while planted in increasingly harsh conditions such as soil degradation, salinization, and drought. The big difference between the advances of the last century and today’s challenge is that the new solutions need to be resilient: able to thrive in this new environment.

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Investment in agricultural technology over the past century or so has been intermittent. After the so-called “Green Revolution” at the turn of the 20th century, investment in agricultural innovation dried up. In the mid-1900s, breakthroughs in use of hybrid seeds and mineral fertilization fueled an amazing increase in crop yields, saving over 1 billion people from starvation. Public focus on food security then went quiet for decades, but in recent years there’s been a resurgence of concern in the international community, given accelerated population growth in a stressed planet facing resource scarcity and climate change. The social unrest caused by the increase of food prices in 2008 underscored the critical need to bring agriculture and food systems up to speed.

Agricultural innovation is needed to enable production of not only more, but also better-quality and more nutritious, food. Crops need to become stronger while planted in increasingly harsh conditions such as soil degradation, salinization, and drought. The big difference between the advances of the last century and today’s challenge is that the new solutions need to be resilient: able to thrive in this new environment.

Monoculture vs. Diversification

The practice of monoculture poses risks to soil, the environment and diet. This concept made the global system of food production vulnerable and reactive to different threats. Every time seeds faced a new pest, pesticide use increased and as soil nutrients were depleted by the same nutrient extraction we would add more fertilizer reigniting the cycle of land degradation. This is without mentioning the practice of planting whatever crop would come to mind, irrespective of the environment, as long as technology would make it possible. We need look no further for results with well-documented and publicized cases as dramatic as California and its water crisis.

This paradigm is just not sustainable – we need to look into the root of the problem, and that is the failure to achieve resilience. For the new paradigm, food diversification and crop rotation will be a must. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), only nine plants supply 75% of human food (wheat, maize, rice, barley, potatoes, yams, sugar cane and soybeans). The human food supply relies on far too small a variety of plants, leaving the system vulnerable. In order to ensure security and stability, crops such as “ancient grains” (e.g., quinoa, amaranth, kamut), perennial crops, and nutrient-dense super foods should be cycled into the system to provide diversification.

Making a Better Seed, Naturally

Now let’s talk about inputs, about resilient seeds needed to meet the challenge. Hybrid seeds are the result of crossbreeding, a combination of natural selection among different varieties, which leaves the DNA chain intact and therefore is not genetically modified. As stated earlier, staple crops form the base of world diets and are the key to produce a significant impact in the food chain, so it is here where work on the effective use of plant hybridization must be focused.

The first seed worth mentioning is a strain of wheat called Luminaria – a hybrid variety developed in Mexico to be water efficient while having the necessary characteristics to produce bread. Wheat varieties for bread production are usually produced in cold weather environments such as Canada or Russia. Luminaria resilient wheat allows countries with warmer climates to produce wheat suitable for bread production, while using less water and producing the same yields. Many actors are involved in this effort and the result is a win/win for both growers and buyers. An example of how this works in practice: The government promotes programs developing local agriculture, while a private company provides a preferential price purchase contract and saves by using local wheat instead of an imported variety coming from far away. The water usage with Luminaria is lower than other varieties and the community benefits from stable yields with fewer inputs and at a premium price. This effort is scalable and can be adapted to other weather situations.

Another smart seed example is the High Quality Maize developed by a Mexican woman, Dr. Evangelina Villegas, winner of the World Food Prize in 2000 in recognition of her efforts. Maize is the base of many diets across Latin America and Africa and while it provides some nutrients and energy, its protein content is low. Dr. Villegas and her associate Dr. Vasal realized that increasing the protein content of maize could greatly enhance the quality of nutrition to these countries.  Through crossbreeding, they created a high-protein maize that not only has double the protein content of traditional varieties, but is also highly digestible, which boosts the net nutritive effect when consumed. While the improvement is not a cure-all for nutritional deficiencies facing countries relying on maize, it is an immediate solution that directly benefits local subsistence farmers already accustomed to growing maize, and provides improved nutrition to the population without having to change their base diet.

Maize and wheat are not the only grains that have been improved through hybridization. There are also significant innovations in producing varieties of resilient rice, the staple food of Asia. Water-saving varieties are increasing yields by 30 % in places like Laos. These varieties are also being created considering nutritional value improvements. That being said, old traditional varieties continue to be relevant. For instance, the local rice variety in Sri Lanka, which was almost driven to extinction, has proven to be more resilient than its hybrid competitors and might be a solution that can withstand the threats of climate change such as erratic rains and flooding.

Last but not least, ancient grains are important to the dialogue on seed resiliency. These are seeds that have adapted over millennia to withstand environmental stress, and were largely forgotten in many industrialized countries due to the demand for higher yields of an industrialized food system. These varieties have exceptional characteristics which might lead the way forward. Examples include wheat varieties like Egyptian kamut, and high protein grains such quinoa and amaranth. Such foods have been grown under extreme conditions such as high altitudes and drought for ages. Quinoa, for instance, has a high protein content and is also tolerant to soil salinization, which is one of the main problems facing modern agricultural land. Amaranth proves more nutritious than corn, provides more net per hectare income to the farmer and uses less water. As stated earlier, perennial crops or tree crops can also be part of the resilience solution – Brazilian nuts and avocados are just a few examples.

It is very clear that for humanity to face a future of harsher production conditions and exponentially increasing demand, there needs to be a major systemic transformation within the current world food apparatus. While the methods and means of food production will continue to underpin a resilient food system, major efforts must be made to reduce post-harvest losses (food waste) and improve infrastructure for food distribution. In the meantime, plant hybrids are the seed that can help usher in the next “green revolution.”

Karla Canavan has been in trading, finance, asset management, and agribusiness over the past 20 years. Passionate about sustainability, Karla has developed her deep understanding of the food and energy value chains through her work at agribusiness giants Cargill and Bunge.

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