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'Virtual' crops could lead to climate-sustainable food

Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 31 Oct 2012 00:03 GMT
Author: Gerald Nelson
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By Gerald Nelson

We’ve heard it many times: business as usual in farming and food production cannot sustainably feed the 9 billion people projected to populate the world by 2050. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, food production must increase by as much as 70 percent in the first half of the 21st century to meet these needs, especially in developing countries. 

Climate change poses particularly daunting challenges to future food production.  Crops and livestock are already susceptible to a variety of physical and biological stresses such as heat, drought, flooding, increased salinity, pests, and diseases.  These stresses are likely to be exacerbated in places that are hotter and wetter (or dryer) due to climate change.

If farmers are to increase yields in these increasingly hostile conditions, they need to replace current crop varieties with new ones and adopt new management systems that perform well in these changing environmental conditions.

The good news is that researchers in CGIAR, a global agriculture research partnership, have identified potential innovations in crops, animals, and management systems that could contribute to meeting this challenge, from drought-tolerant sorghum with high yield potential to pest-resistant cassava varieties. 

But how much will it cost to develop these innovations and which will work under real life conditions, especially in the face of increasingly scarce natural resources and the added challenge of climate change?

The Global Futures project, a collaborative project involving economists, plant and animal breeders, physiologists, agronomists and others from a wide range of partners within the CGIAR and beyond, is working to come up with these answers - virtually.

The project, which is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is evaluating the impact of potential investments in research on the world’s most important crops, cropping systems, forests, and livestock -- focusing on the regions that are most vulnerable to global changes in the next 30 to 50 years and on the needs of the rural poor and smallholder farmers.  The project is the focus of a presentation during the Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development taking place this week in Punta del Este, Uruguay.

Project scientists are assessing how changes in global trading regimes, mandates for biofuels and energy prices, land degradation, and climate change affect human well-being and developing countries’ progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals of reducing hunger, malnutrition, and poverty. 

They are also testing crop technologies by growing “virtual crops.” 

Using state-of-the-art modeling, the project team identifies promising agricultural technologies—such as special traits to adapt to drought or use water and fertilizer more efficiently— and creates “virtual” plant (and eventually animal) varieties with those traits.  They then test these virtual plants under a range of plausible scenarios—from a world where global economic performance is good, to one that is not so desirable—to see how the new technology might contribute to human wellbeing and sustainability.

Researchers have been using computer models to understand complex biological processes in plants for 25 years, but this the first instance of using these tools to assess technologies before they are actually created.

Once they are “grown,” the virtual crops are then fed into a state-of-the-art economic model called the International Model for Policy Analysis of Agricultural Commodities and Trade (IMPACT). This model, created by researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute, generates scenarios of future production, consumption, and trade of key agricultural commodities, and can assess the effects of climate change, water availability and other major trends.

Global Futures project researchers are using the results to determine which crop varieties will be most successful, both in producing high future yields and in addressing food security and climate change challenges. 

The future of sustainable food production that helps the poor and smallholders while protecting natural resources may well depend on the insights provided by these virtual crops.

Gerald Nelson is a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

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