Investment in Agriculture R&D Delivers Results that Matter


Technology and innovation deliver resilience and make me a better farmer.

I’m growing more food than ever before with better seeds, better fertilizer, and better crop protection. The theme song of my farm here in Mexico could be “Getting Better,” by the Beatles, with its familiar chorus: “It’s getting better all the time.”

Behind it all is the modern miracle of research and development—and especially the scientists and agronomists who are committed to delivering science-based innovations from the lab to the farm. My family has a rich history of working with CIMMYT, the international R&D center with headquarters near Mexico City. Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, used to visit my father’s farm in the Mexican highlands to work on the improvement of wheat.

Today, I plant and harvest crops in the same fields, benefiting from Dr. Borlaug’s research as well as the advances of those who have followed him. Good things happen when scientists and farmers collaborate.

Dr. Borlaug and my father would be amazed at how much we grow on the farm today. We have seeds that flourish at our high altitude and in our sandy soil, crop-protection tools that help us fend off weeds, pests, and diseases, and sustainable technologies and methods such as no-till machinery that help me keep organic residues in the soil, and crop rotation.

Everything is better, thanks to R&D.

And it can keep on getting better—if we make shrewd investments.

That’s the conclusion of a new report from the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a think tank that seeks to provide “the smartest solutions to the world’s biggest problems.” A team of five authors says that “agricultural R&D is likely one of the best uses of resources” in the coming decades.

They argue that additional funding for agricultural R&D is the most effective way to improve the quality of life for people in the poorest nations. Their plan would boost agricultural output by 10 percent, lower food prices by 16 percent, and reduce hunger by 35 percent, according to the report.

The price tag: $5.2 billion per year over the next 35 years.

That’s a big commitment—but the total also is less than what Qatar spent last year to host the World Cup.

The authors rely on a sophisticated and peer-reviewed model created by the International Food Policy Research Institute. They admit that their model can’t predict exactly what innovations the new R&D would deliver. That’s the thing about discoveries: You can’t know what you’re going to find, but you won’t find anything if you don’t look.

This means that their model is essentially a glorified guess—an educated prediction about the bounties of human ingenuity, based on the best information available to us now. It assumes, for example, “more rapid and efficient breeding and fast adoption of innovations.” This is almost certain to happen, as new gene-editing technologies allow us to improve seeds much more quickly than the conventional breeding approaches.

brown trees on green grass field during daytimeThe authors in fact provide several possible scenarios—and some are even better than the results they highlight. In one forecast, for example, spending an extra $5.2 billion on agricultural R&D per year over 35 years leads to an improvement of 17 percent in crop yields and 24 percent in livestock productivity in the developing world. Another scenario shows environmental progress: As yields go up, agricultural land use goes down by 1 million hectares, meaning the planet will have more forests and lower greenhouse-gas emissions.

Not every scenario is this promising, and all of us must cope with the pervasive and perhaps worsening problems of climate change, water scarcity, and war.

Yet in every scenario that involves more R&D funding, things get better. Agricultural innovation enhances food security, improves nutrition and health, and spurs economic growth.

I know what innovations I’d like to see on my farm. The biggest achievement would be the ability to grow two crops per year, rather than just one. I’d also welcome new crop varieties that survive droughts, protect against diseases, and generate even better yields. Other farmers will have their own wish lists based on their regional interests, from plant innovations to the adoption of no-till farming and precision irrigation.

Our challenges can appear enormous, but we have great opportunities, too—and with more agricultural R&D funding, we have an excellent chance for a future in which things are getting better all the time.

Guillermo Breton

Guillermo Breton

Guillermo is a fifth generation farmer in Tlaxcala, which is in the center of Mexico. He is an agronomist and produces maize, triticale, sunflower, and vetch and rye grass forages. He is also now in the barley business in the seed program with Heineken.
Guillermo is focused on soil conservation since Tlaxcala has the lowest organic matter percentage in the country. He promotes conservation agriculture principles of crop rotation and residue management.
On the livestock side, he has 100 Angus and braunvieh cattle on 200 hectares. The challenges Guillermo is currently facing include climate, the hard winter, the cost of fertilizers and an unsupportive government.
He is currently promoting projects with a carbon capture perspective and also innovation for small farmer systems. Guillermo leads Fundación Produce activities and projects with farmers in his state. He’s an innovator on his own farm and then shares the technologies with groups of farmers.

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