New era of plant domestication

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By RICARDO ABRAMOVAY*

Diversity will be at the heart of the transformation of the global agri-food system

The simplification of agricultural landscapes is the foundation on which the contemporary food system rests. Six products (rice, wheat, corn, potatoes, soybeans and sugar cane) account for more than 75% of vegetable calories offered globally. This concentration represents a gigantic risk to global food security, especially due to the intensification of extreme weather events. Furthermore, the caloric richness of this monotony contrasts with the micronutrient deficiency that marks the diet of billions of people globally. The paradox of obesity in the midst of malnutrition clearly expresses the unity between agricultural monotony and dietary monotony.

But there are alternative solutions to this scenario that “increase the quality of diets and nutrition while reducing global dependence on some staple crops (staple foods) and the countries that dominate its exports”.

This diagnosis and the diversification proposals that arise from it would not be so relevant if they did not originate in the institution that has brought together, for more than fifty years, the main agricultural research organizations in the world, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). on one article published in the British daily “The Telegraph” (23/10/2023), Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted and Ismahane Elouafi show that the global food supply would be more resilient and nutritious if it were diversified. Both belong to the CGIAR and Elouafi has just taken over its direction.

The CGIAR, created with support from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation, was one of the main vectors for the global dissemination of Green Revolution technologies and the methods by which high-potential seeds increased their yields through the large-scale use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in environments dominated by the cultivation of a few products.

Of course, the CGIAR has had several changes since the 1970s. But now it is the narrative itself about what society should expect from agricultural research that is undergoing a change that, without exaggeration, should be called paradigmatic. It is about investing in the diversification of crops, in more nutritious products and in the revaluation of crops that the Green Revolution neglected, increasing knowledge of the local ecosystem conditions necessary for their adaptation. This requires transformation in the agronomic research axis and in public and private investments in the agri-food system.

This paradigmatic change is expressed in the statement that titles an important article published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (9/02/2023): “The next era of crop domestication starts now” (The next era of plant domestication begins now). Although the forms of plant domestication practiced so far have been efficient in increasing the supply of calories and reducing food prices, says the article, they are increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather events.

Addressing this problem requires changing focus and moving from maximizing caloric production to maximizing nutritional density, climate resilience, biological diversity and equity. This does not mean a return to the past, but on the contrary, a new orientation for agronomic research itself and even for agricultural engineering. Harvesters manufactured for homogeneous crops, for example, will be replaced by more flexible machines, equipped with devices that allow intelligent harvesting, respecting the soil and the plasticity of different crops and their maturation times.

The transition paths to diversify the global agri-food system are not even remotely clear. It is still difficult to assess the scope of different initiatives. But perhaps it is not irrelevant that Cary Fowler, the State Department's special food security envoy, is ushering in a transformation that, in theory, breaks with everything the United States has done on food security since World War II. Worldwide. To the point that, according to the newspaper The New York Times (22/01/2024), Anthony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, at the World Economic Forum, called the change “genuinely revolutionary”. Its budget is still low ($100 million), but the project deserves to be known.

Relying on a few basic cultures, says the program created by Cary Fowler, in cooperation with the African Union and FAO/UN, increases systemic vulnerability, crop losses and reduced yields. Traditional crops require research and investment to become commercially competitive. But they are the ones that can contribute most to improving the quality of food. Furthermore, research into neglected and little-used products can help reverse the severe soil degradation experienced by several African regions, as they are products adapted to local ecosystem conditions. The message is clear: as important as international trade is, food security and the victory in the fight against hunger in sub-Saharan Africa must rely, first of all, on strengthening local productive capacities and relying on products adapted to their needs. ecosystems.

And it is clear that the role of neglected and underused products will vary greatly depending on different ecosystems. The biological enrichment of soils in large areas cultivated with a few products and the severe reduction in the use of chemical inputs are routes that will accelerate the transition from techniques that dominated the Green Revolution and that become obsolete in the Anthropocene, even in those regions dominated until now by homogeneous plantings.

What is certain is that diversity will be at the heart of the transformation of the global agri-food system. This is one of the themes that Brazilian Climate Change Forum, promoted by several civil society organizations in São Paulo, will be discussed on the 26th and 27th of February, just before the meeting of the G20 Finance Ministers.

*Ricardo Abramovay is a professor at the Josué de Castro Chair at the Faculty of Public Health at USP. Author, among other books, of Infrastructure for Sustainable Development (Elephant). [https://amzn.to/3QcqWM3]

Originally published in the newspaper Economic value.


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