The need for collaborative investments in agricultural research and development is more important than ever to overcome escalating food production challenges from population growth, weather extremes and geopolitical conflicts, according to Cary Fowler, special envoy for global food security at the U.S. State Department.

“Agricultural R&D is absolutely essential to our collective future on this planet,” Fowler said in an interview at the World Food Prize in Des Moines. “If you think about it, the last big quantum leap in agricultural production was the ‘Green Revolution’ in the 1960s —that’s Norman Borlaug.

“We haven’t had anything quite like that since. If you look forward at the demand for food for 2050 and just look at the demographic growth in population, we’re not set to meet that demand. We’re set to fall pretty far short of it.”

Meeting nutritional needs
To meet the nutritional needs of a projected world population of 50 billion people by 2050, food production needs to increase at a rate of nearly 2% per year, said Fowler, who helped found the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which stores and protects more than 900,000 unique seed varieties from around the world.

However, according to the annual Global Agricultural Productivity (GAP) report, the world’s agricultural productivity grew at an average of just 1.14% percent annually from 2011-21.

“That may not seem like a lot — just 1% — but that’s 1% every year, so by 2050 we’ve got 20% or 30% compounded that we fall short by. That’s significant,” Fowler said.

The problem is even more dire in impoverished regions like Africa, where productivity has fallen into the negative range while population growth soars, he said.

“One could ask why should we care in the United States. But we have to realize that food security is intimately linked with national security. In places where you have severe food insecurity, those are the places where you have civil strife, and those can have a direct, immediate, profound impact on Americans.”

Taking a moon shot
Agricultural research and development investments have a net positive impact, both domestically and abroad, said Fowler. However, the U.S. has fallen behind in recent years, he said.

“With agricultural R&D, on an inflation-adjusted basis, we’re back to where we were 50 years ago,” he said. “We’ve been stagnating our R&D, and while we’ve been doing that, other countries have been going forward.

“China, in particular, was less than 1% of total ag R&D in the 1980s and now is about one-quarter of global expenditures. We’re in second place by a long shot to China right now.”

To reverse course, Fowler said the U.S. needs to prioritize investments in ag research to parallel the gains made during the Green Revolution.

“I think we need to get serious about that,” he said. “We can’t depend on these small, incremental increases in productivity year after year. We need some moon shots to pay off.”

Fowler acknowledged the tight budgetary constraints in Washington, which means public-private partnerships will be crucial to scaling up innovations.

“If you think about the kind of challenges we face in agriculture globally and what it’s going to require to overcome the obstacles to productivity, it’s hard to imagine that’s going to take place simply with government dollars. We’re going to need to create an enabling environment for the private sector.”

Maintaining markets
In addition to prioritizing research and development, the State Department has a role in maintaining strong overseas markets for American ag products, Fowler said.

When countries are experiencing a food crisis, they tend to implement protective measures like export bans and import tariffs that create havoc in the marketplace, increasing price volatility and undermining the market for American products, he noted.

Along with other federal agencies, the State Department conducts outreach efforts with governments across the globe to point out the consequences of those actions.

“Governments are playing to the home folks. They think that if there’s a food crisis, we’ll just stop exporting a particular crop and prices will go down and everybody will be happy,” Fowler said. “That’s not really the way it works out in the end, so we try to keep the markets open and flowing.”