Although as mentioned the blog is on holiday, I did comment that I would be attending a high-level event in the middle of August. This was the Prime Minister’s Global Hunger event (hashtag #globalhunger), sponsored by DfID Secretary of State Andrew Mitchell and held at Number 10. This highly important event, that was also addressed by the double Olympic gold medal-winning athletes Haile Gebrselassie and Mo Farah, focussed on the recognition that, even with adequate quantities of food, many children suffer malnutrition (undernutrition) because of inadequate intakes of micronutrients, not least vitamin A, ‘iron’ and ‘zinc’, leading to lower-than-average rates of growth and development, referred to as ‘stunting’. The aim was to effect real progress in dealing with this by the time of the next Summer Olympics to be held in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
A plenary session was addressed by the Prime Minister, by Brazilian Vice President Michel Temer, and by a variety of other ministers and Prime Ministers from abroad. There then followed three round tables, focussing on Accountability, on the Private sector, and – the one I attended – on Agricultural Innovation. Our Chair was David Nabarro, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Food and Nutrition Security, and our Rapporteur was Akinwumi Adesina, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development of Nigeria. Each of our speakers, who included Rachel Kyte (World Bank), Sam Dryden (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Pedro Arraes (Embrapa), Ashish Wele (Nirmal Seeds India), Howarth Bouis (Harvest Plus), Marta Andrade (International Potato Centre, Mozambique) and local organiser Sir Gordon Conway (Imperial College), agreed on the importance of (investment in) science and innovation in helping deal with these complex problems (that also required investment in infrastructure and improved social conditions). The vitamin A-enriched sweet potatoes being deployed in Mozambique and Uganda were an undoubted success story, which can easily be rolled out more widely.
My role was to summarise the evidence for the need for investment in research and innovation. Since the urgency of the problems means that we do not have time to waste collecting new evidence, I pointed out that fortunately it exists already in the form of the relationship between investment in Agricultural research in the UK and increases in wheat yields, that had trebled since the 1940s (and are now ~10x those of Africa, for both genetic and agronomic reasons). Now we need to continue these improvements and roll them out worldwide, but without the huge amounts of fossil-based (and other) fertiliser that were part of the (first) ‘Green Revolution’. Since (as many participants pointed out) farmers will plant new varieties only if biomass yields are higher, micronutrient-enhanced crops must be part of a yield-enhancing breeding programme. While BBSRC has funded some projects on nutrient enhancement (such as iron-fortified wheat, high omega-3 oil plants, and purple tomatoes) we should do more of this. Specifically, we need to bring our Agriculture and Nutrition communities together. Multiple traits that might usefully be selected for together, as a multi-objective optimisation problem, include N use efficiency (where we are planning a major N fixation programme) and drought tolerance (where we have plans with regard to root biology), as well as the micronutrient levels mentioned above.
Overall, we recognised that genomics-driven plant breeding offers abundant possibilities for both fundamental and applied plant science, that livestock and aquaculture had significant roles to play in some regions, and that our knowledge of agriculture and breeding was probably better than that of nutrition. Clearly these are important topics for future (co-)investment if the Prime Minister’s goals are to be met.
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