Public spending on agricultural research must double in the next decade if the world is to successfully move to sustainable methods of food production, says a UN-backed report.
This funding must be coupled with long-term investment in the training of agricultural professionals to fill the skill gaps in many developing countries, concludes the report published yesterday by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network's (SDSN) group on agriculture and food systems.
The SDSN was launched by the UN last year to identify and demonstrate new approaches to sustainable development, and produced its first report in June. The new, agriculture, report was released together with six other reports by the network's thematic groups on issues including health, natural resource management, and ecosystem services and biodiversity.
The reports represent a major input by scientists towards a new set of global development goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.
Achim Dobermann, the deputy director-general for research at the International Rice Research Institute, in the Philippines, and co-chair of the SDSN group on agriculture, says that recent increases in agricultural research investment by the private sector are no substitute for public funding.
This is because commercially driven research tends to ignore many essential areas, such as environmental impact and agronomy, he says.
"All of these are 'bread and butter' areas, but, as they are not attractive to private sector, public funding must take the lead," he tells SciDev.Net.
Increasing yields while minimising environmental harm is one of the greatest challenges facing agriculture and will require the use of a more tailored, knowledge-intensive system, the report says.
To allow for the development of adaptable, site-specific farming methods, research into the size and location of gaps in yield and efficiency - where resources such as fertilizers are not being used efficiently - for crop and livestock production should be a top priority, it finds.
The effective use of technology is essential to these goals, the report says.
Examples of technologies that are important to fully exploit include genomics-based precision breeding methods, gene discovery and biotechnology - all of which are crop improvement methods that are particularly beneficial to smallholders, it adds.
Another rich resource for development, according to the report, are digital technologies ranging from satellite imagery and big data analysis to platforms for research collaboration and improving farming advice.
Dearth of human expertise
But, while such new technologies are useful tools, the report notes that only well-trained scientists and agricultural practitioners can provide the innovation and drive to bring about the necessary change.
Many national agricultural research systems in developing nations are not up to the task and rely heavily on foreign donors, it says.
Increasing national research spending to one per cent of GDP (gross domestic product) is essential to rectify weaknesses in human capacity, in terms of both skills and numbers, infrastructure and governance, the report adds.
Furthermore, to avoid a generation-long gap in agricultural expertise, developing nations must focus on encouraging young people to pursue careers in relevant fields, it says.
The low number of students studying in fields such as agronomy, soil science and pest management, particularly in Africa, is a real worry, says Dobermann.
This problem reflects the political tendency to prioritise short-term results over scholarship and support programmes for young professionals that take many years to bear fruit, he adds.
Aggrey Agumya, senior technical advisor at the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, based in Ghana, believes that the capacity gap is so acute in many countries that even a doubling of public research spending might be insufficient.
He says that the seriousness of the problem is masked by the fact that any spending increases often go on better salaries rather than improvements to infrastructure and research networks.
But the greatest problem is not the lack of researchers but the inability of institutions to apply findings in ways that bring practical benefits, Agumya says.
To improve this, great efforts must be made to strengthen agricultural institutions' planning and governance capacities to maximise research benefits, he adds.