Agriculture / Impact Assessment / Livestock / Research / Women

Top 100 (‘future of agriculture’) questions

The Wizard

The wizard (picture credit: Sean McGrath’s Photostream).

In the (reflective/list-obsessed) spirit of the end-of-year/end-of-decade season, and in case you missed it last November, the ‘top 100’ questions on the future of global agriculture was whittled down from a total of 618 ‘key questions’ over the course of a year by a group of 55 experts from 23 countries and published in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability.

Led by Jules Pretty, of the University of Essex, the experts agreed that these are the ‘top 100 questions that need answering if agriculture is to succeed in this century’.

The authors report: ‘Our objective was to compile a list of the top 100 questions that, if addressed, would have a significant impact on global agricultural practices worldwide, while improving the synergy between agricultural policy, practice and research. . . . We employed a collaborative and inclusive horizon-scanning approach designed to maximize openness to different perspectives, democracy in consolidating these perspectives, and scientific rigour . . . . We gathered a team of senior representatives and experts from the world’s major agricultural organizations, professional scientific societies, non-government and academic institutions, which are linked in various ways to the potential beneficiaries of this research, including farmers and policy makers. The intention is that the Top 100 list of questions thus devised will guide policy support and priorities for agricultural research programmes in the coming years.’

The 100 questions cover 14 areas, from climate change to energy to crop and livestock production to markets:
01 Climate, watersheds, water resources and aquatic ecosystems
02 Soil nutrition, erosion and use of fertilizer
03 Biodiversity, ecosystem services and conservation
04 Energy, climate change and resilience
05 Crop production systems and technologies
06 Crop genetic improvement
07 Pest and disease management
08 Livestock
09 Social capital, gender and extension
10 Development and livelihoods
11 Governance, economic investment, power and policymaking
12 Food supply chains
13 Prices, markets and trade
14 Consumption patterns and health

Such a list of top 100 questions naturally (for researchers) begs the question as to whether these are yet researchable, that is, answerable within this century. Some of the questions, such as #15, are ambitious by any scientific standard: ‘What is the relationship between productivity and biodiversity (and/or other ecosystem services) and how does this vary between agricultural systems and as a function of the spatial scale at which land is devoted mostly to food production?’ Some really really big questions, like #67, masquerade here as really really simple: ‘What are the best options to improve the sustainable intensification of agriculture? (what indeed!). Or take Question #70: ‘How can interdisciplinary frameworks integrating scientific innovation and multi-stakeholder perspectives be designed and effectively applied to farming systems within developing countries’ (how indeed!) or Question #77: ‘What are the consequences of different choices of investments in the resilience of agricultural systems to address the multifaceted adverse effects of climate change?’, a mother-of-all climate change question if ever there was one for those of us working in agricultural development.

Some questions omit main players; in the area of livestock, for example, it’s hard to see how Question #6 can be answered with no obligation to even consider pastoral and agro-pastoral production systems: ‘What combinations of forestry, agroforestry, grass cover, water-collecting systems and storage facilities, drought-resistant crops and water-saving technology are needed in arid and semi-arid areas to increase food production, and to what extent can they become cost-effective?’

Here are what the 55 experts say in their introduction to their section on livestock. As usual these days, discussion of the central, many and varied contributions livestock make to the livelihoods and nutritional and other key functions of billions of poor households worldwide quickly gives way to concerns about livestock ‘bads’ such as zoonotic diseases and the global carbon footprint of livestock production.

‘Livestock provide a valuable source of food (CAST, 2001) and play important agricultural and cultural roles in societies worldwide (Sansoucy, 1995; Schiere et al., 2002; FAO, 2009d). The livestock sector supports almost one billion of the world’s poorest people, often in combination with cropping. With livestock constituting the world’s largest user of land resources (80 per cent of all agricultural landis under grazing or feed crops) and 8 per cent of global water use, the sustainability of livestock production systems is increasingly being addressed (Steinfeld et al., 2006).

‘The livestock sector faces many challenges, such as the need to adapt to changing climates, which will provide more favourable or hostile environments for particular species and breeds. Furthermore, the livestock sector generates 37 per cent of anthropogenic methane, in addition to carbon dioxide (9 per cent) and nitrous oxide (65 per cent) (Steinfeld et al., 2006). Given the great diversity between regions and species, the options for specific livestock production systems will need to be defined, and the trade-offs assessed. Tailored approaches are needed to avoid simplistic solutions to diverse and complex livelihood systems, so that they canmeet the demand for livestock products in an environmentally sound and economically sustainable way.’

Here are the experts’ top 9 questions regarding livestock production and the future of global agriculture.

#51: ‘How can intensive livestock systems be designed to minimize the spread of infectious diseasesamong animals and the risk of the emergence ofnew diseases infecting humans?

#53. How can middle and small-scale animal production be made suitable for developing countries in terms of environmental impact, economic return and human food supply and what should be the key government policies to ensurethat a balance between the two is implemented?

#54. What are the priority efficiency targets for livestock production systems (e.g. the appropriate mix of activities in different systems, theoptimal numbers and types of animals) that would enable these systems to meet the demand for livestock products in an environmentally sound, economically sustainable and socially responsible way?

#55. What are the effective and efficient policies and other interventions to reduce the demand for animal products in societies with high consumption levels and how will they affect global trade in livestock products and the competitiveness of smallholder livestock production systems in poor countries?

#56. In addition to livestock production, how can inland and coastal fish farming contribute to a more sustainable mode of animal protein production in developing countries?

#57. What are the best means to encourage the economic growth of regional livestock markets, while limiting the effects of global climatechange, and what can industrialized countries do to improve the carbon footprint of its livestock sector?

#58. What are the environmental impacts of different kinds of livestock-rearing and aquaculture systems?

#83. How might appropriate limits be established onnational per capita levels of meat consumption,while recognizing projected demographic andeconomic growth, given the aggregate impact of global livestock numbers particularly in relation to feed requirements and waste streams?

#95. How will predicted changes in meat consumption across different countries affect demand for the range of agricultural produce?

Several of us here at the International Livestock Research Institute would take issue with this list. But surely one of the benefits of publishing such a list is that it gets us all thinking. So, what do you think? Do these 9 questions cover the most important researchable animal husbandry issues impinging on the future of global agriculture? What’s missing here? What’s overemphasized?

This publication forms one part of the UK Government’s Foresight Global Food and Farming Futures project. The project will publish its findings this month, January 2011. The Foresight Programme, part of the UK’s Government Office for Science, helps Government think systematically about the future and uses the latest scientific and other evidence to provide signposts for policymakers in tackling future challenges.

Read the paper: The top 100 questions of importance to the future of global agriculture, by Jules Pretty et al., published in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 11 November 2010.

The chair (Monty Jones) and executive secretary (Mark Holderness) of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research were among the 55 experts consulted in this publication.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s