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Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag

Information on the project

How can research contribute to solving the problem of world food?

Thematic area: Food, agriculture, genetically modified crops
Analytical approach: TA project
Topic initiative: Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment
Status: completed
Duration: 2009 till 2010

Background and central aspects of the topic

Undernourishment and malnutrition for reasons of poverty constitute a problem that mainly arises in developing and emerging countries and represents a core topic in the debate that flared up in early 2008 regarding the future of global agriculture. Despite all the efforts made in the past decades, the world food problem still exists and currently affects about one billion people worldwide. In contrast to the hopes entertained in previous years, strongly fluctuating food prices (e.g., due to production problems as a result of the negative effects of climate change, to the growing demand for basic agricultural commodities for material and energy usage, and to a disproportionately increasing consumption of meat as the world population continues to rise) lead to the number of those affected now being expected to increase once again.

One important level of distinction in the world food problem lies in its causes. Acute hunger crises with temporal causes on the one hand must be distinguished from chronic hunger and malnutrition with structural causes on the other. Acute nutrition crises can be triggered by the impacts of unfavourable weather conditions, such as drought or flooding, by natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, by economic collapse, or by military conflicts and civil war. Behind the current causes, however, there are often also long-term problems, such as the increase in flooding which must be regarded in the context of climate change.

Besides the fundamental connection between poverty and hunger, there are a multitude of structural factors which contribute to undernourishment and malnutrition. The two basic categories of food supply are its provision or production and its distribution or access. Problems pertaining to provision or production can occur on a local, regional, national, or even continental scale; and the same is true for distribution and access. For all individual aspects and dimensions, it is true that one crucial factor is »good governance« – with regard to the social distribution of resources (capital, land, seeds, etc), the design of agricultural practice, of the handling of natural resources, market design, administrative structures and social and political systems overall. All this (and much more) influences the extent and character of malnutrition and undernourishment, which can indeed also occur in industrial countries, where it is often found where poverty meets a lack of information and difficulties in setting priorities under precarious living conditions.

Because the causes are so varied (ranging from world trade policies as a conditioning factor of economic development generally and of the sales markets for agricultural products from developing countries, to questions of migration and the availability of water) and mutually influence each other, it is hard to pinpoint all the disciplines of agricultural, biological and environmental science, economics, social and political sciences where research could especially contribute to solving the world food problem. All the more recent pertinent commentaries and reports, e.g., the G8 summit in July2008, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology (IAASTD), the World Bank, and also the German government, accord an important role to science and technology – and thus to (more) intensive research in the future. For instance, the report by the German government on »Global Food Security from Sustainable Development and Agriculture« in June 2008 calls for agricultural research to be intensified both at a basic level and specifically with a view to the problem of competitive use in developing the use of bioenergy. To achieve increased yields, the report says, research efforts are necessary along the whole chain of agricultural production including the supply industry.

It explicitly mentions improving the potential of agricultural crops, training specialists in developing countries and supporting knowledge and technology transfer by means of joint R&D projects and by reinforcing local agricultural training and advice. Particular emphasis is given to promoting international agricultural research (e.g. by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, CGIAR) and researching the »innovative field of plants« in the context of the German government's »High-Tech Strategy«. It refers to the »National Technology Council for Bio-Economy«, which aims to pool expertise from science, the economy, and social groups and develop recommendations for action for a concerted national and European research strategy. With a view to the necessary further steps, great emphasis is placed on the need for an internationally coordinated procedure which – as stated in all the commentaries mentioned above – must also include intensifying research funding (in all relevant disciplines).

Objectives and approach

Progress can only be made in solving the world food problem if both highly complex problem areas and their challenges are addressed:

  • How can hunger and malnutrition due to poverty be conquered in developing and emerging countries?
  • How can food production and food security be guaranteed in environmentally and socially acceptable ways for a progressively increasing world population?

The TAB project will consider both perspectives at a basic level, but without describing all the many dimensions and facets of the poverty problem in great detail. It will rather primarily concentrate on questions of improved future agricultural production, storage and distribution of food as well as the options to affect the demand (as a result of population and consumption behaviour/patterns).

The documents mentioned above will serve as one starting point for elaborating the sub-areas of the world food problem that are recognised as particularly relevant and where there is a particularly great need for research. In so doing, it has to be taken into account that assessing the questions, technologies and procedures that are particularly worthy of research and support in terms of the great promise they hold for relieving the world food problem, strongly depend on the developmental concepts pursued in agriculture. In this regard, for instance, the IAASTD report puts significantly more emphasis on the promotion of economically threatened subsistence operations in developing countries whose operators themselves account for a large part of the starving world population, while the World Bank would prefer to give more technology to support the farmers who are now already more competitive. In its most recent world development report, the World Bank particularly emphasises the problem of implementing existing knowledge in locally and regionally effective production strategies. According to many experts particular attention has to be given to the aspect of improved participation of the target groups both at the phrasing of research questions and the choice of research strategies (»participative research«) and the implementation into practice.

In the TAB project, the primary object of investigation are the disciplines in German science or R&D from which one can expect particularly relevant, additional significant progress and contributions to solving the problem, which would obviously justify more intensive support. The aim is to discover where specific restrictions must be overcome and new forms of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research and science investigated and developed. The TAB project will centre around a symposium to be held in early 2010 on the topic of future research and funding requirements. In preparation for this symposium, the aim is to assign a series of expert commentaries to experts from various fields, institutions and NGOs.

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