The “green revolution” of the 1960s delivered vast increases in food production, averting famines and political instability across the world. There are now urgent appeals for a second green revolution to make food more sustainable, involving climate-adapted crops (some genetically-modified), healthier soil and reduced chemical inputs. Sadly, incentives on offer for agri-tech firms mean our hopes of achieving such a revolution are under grave threat.
As was the case 50 years ago, those who grow our food are tasked with growing healthy plants in the face of drought, lack of nutrients, pests, and diseases. But this is where the similarity ends. In 2016, climate change is already hitting home, wreaking havoc with patterns of weather and disease. Furthermore, ten billion people will need feeding by 2050, requiring us to produce as much food between now and then as has been produced in the whole of human history.
This isn’t just a technical problem for agricultural scientists. Alongside the challenge of supplying adequate calories in ever harsher environments, we must also tackle some deep-rooted obstacles to a fair and safe food supply.
The economic landscape of agricultural research is radically different to that which enabled the first green revolution. Today, it is overwhelmingly driven by an international private sector, whereas in the past government-funded institutes would develop and distribute better crops and farming techniques.
This shift away from state-funded research poses significant risks when government regulation threatens profits, as evidenced by the recent debate over the re-licencing of the herbicide glyphosate. The argument here should be about the trade-off between the weed-killing benefits of a chemical versus possible negative effects on human health and the environment. However, the profitability of glyphosate-containing herbicides and glyphosate-tolerant crop plants is dependent upon its legality. As a result, conflicts of interest between profits and safety are the true drivers of such controversies, leading to industrial-scale lobbying by agri-tech which undermines the potential for EU regulators to make a balanced decision.
Of equal concern is the rampant patenting of the biological resources which underlie our food systems. As we obtain more and more information from crop genomes, the scientific process of sharing one’s research should facilitate huge improvements in crop production around the world. Instead, each additional level of biological information has provided a further opportunity for these crops to become ever more exclusive, based on the ability to pay for access rather than a requirement.
The profitability of patents is also distorting the priorities of agri-tech and research institutes. For instance, engineering so-called “resistance” genes into a crop suffering from a microbial disease is a readily patentable process. In addition, once a microbe evolves to overcome the resistance gene, the farmer must then purchase a different variety which has been genetically engineered with the next line of defence. Both of these factors have the potential to push research away from a more multi-layered approach to crop protection and more towards those “innovations” which can be licenced for profit.
Finally, the idea in most privatised sectors is that competition between different companies promotes innovation and maintains fair prices for consumers. This simply isn’t the case in agri-tech. At present, just three companies own a staggering 51% of the world’s agri-chemicals and 55% of the world’s commercial seed varieties. This situation is only worsening, as these companies seek mergers to consolidate their market share and increase investment potential.
Such concentration of power over the price and distribution of products is rarely tolerated in other industries, and it is particularly worrying to see such a monopoly over our means to grow food. If access to the knowledge gained during the second green revolution is to be shaped by market forces, we should at least ensure that this is a market with competition.
It should be possible to avert a global food crisis, but we must start by reframing the debate. Most public discussion of food security is dominated by an anti-science lobby that is highly sceptical about the safety of GM-technology, when all GM crops really represent is a small part of a complex solution.
The deeper issue lies in the ownership of the technology we need to grow food, and the way that science and intellectual property have been misappropriated. We require nothing less than a total restructuring of the global agri-tech sector – only then can we ensure billions more people can sustainably feed themselves.