'The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability' report was launched last week by the British government and written by its Foresight think tank, in consultation with researchers from 34 countries from across the developed and developing worlds.
The report provides a uniquely broad view of what causes food scarcity, identifying the factors that make up a complex political, social, economic and scientific web.
And it includes less obvious causes of hunger, such as the distressing fact that nearly a third of the food that is grown is wasted, for example by spoiling through poor storage.
It also conveys the sheer scale of the problem, demonstrating that food scarcity will eventually affect us all, even those of us whose bellies are full. Because, as we have seen in Tunisia and elsewhere, hunger leads to civil unrest and migration, and because farming, as it is currently practised, is destroying key resources and emits too much greenhouse gas.
Guilty by omission
In the sphere of research, many omissions have contributed to hunger. The report points out that existing innovations have not reached many of those who could benefit from them. In Africa, if these alone were implemented, productivity could rise as much as three-fold.
But three-fold, in only a few regions, is not enough.
New knowledge is essential. Yet for most countries, research into agriculture and fisheries is a low priority, says the report, and studies have now correlated the previous two-decade apathy with today's slowdown in productivity gains.
The report offers no support for 'knee-jerk' commentary seeking obvious scapegoats for hunger, such as the failure to adopt genetically modified crops, or the politics of food distribution. There is no single cause to rail against, and there is definitely no single solution.
And it makes clear that every approach must be harnessed in the quest for a new food system that "needs to change more radically in the coming decades than ever before, including during the Industrial and Green Revolutions".
Investing in research is one of the report's "key priorities". It points out that modellers agree that the science and technology yet to be done will be "one of the most critical drivers" of future food supply: "These challenges will require solutions at the limits of human ingenuity and at the forefront of scientific understanding," it says.
A priority for research
To achieve the required levels of research investment, says the report, more incentives must be provided for research into public goods that benefit low-income countries. New models of research funding are necessary. And research funders from the public, private and third sectors should sort out their differences and coordinate better.
The question is: can this report, and the others, propel hunger to the top of the political agenda? Calestous Juma, professor of international development at Harvard University, and author of a recent book on African food production , argues that the crucial step is getting heads of state to wantto solve the problem.
But achieving this degree of political will is hard, if only because hunger has the biggest impact on those who are in the weakest position to influence policy.
Reference: 28/01 SciDev Time to make agricultural research a top priority