Leading officials including UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres are sounding the alarm over the alarming state of global food security. The war in Ukraine, Guterres recently highlighted, risks tipping “tens of millions of people over the edge into food insecurity, followed by malnutrition, mass hunger and famine, in a crisis that could last for years”. Ukraine is one of the world’s largest exporters of staple crops, and the conflict in the country has caused sharp rises in wheat and fertiliser prices around the world, exacerbating factors already undermining global food security and threatening to push the most vulnerable countries over the edge.
Europe’s role in a mounting food crisis
Indeed, even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forced food workers to abandon the country’s fields just as spring crops needed to be planted, the outlook for global food security was grim. Pandemic-related labour shortages and supply chain disruptions had all taken their toll, while extreme weather events caused by climate change are slowly undermining the world’s ability to produce food. Just this month, for instance, an unprecedented heat wave in India is set to cause a 10-15% loss in wheat production, a devastating blow to developing countries’ food supply.
Europe, less likely to face acute shortages, though increasing prices are straining household budgets, now has a moral duty to help alleviate the growing food insecurity gripping poorer countries by increasing its agricultural output. In order to balance this necessary increase in production with the EU’s long-standing commitment to protecting the environment, Europe must take decisive action to embrace both traditional plant science tools as well as increasingly sophisticated agricultural innovations and technology, boosting yields while reducing the environmental impact of farming.
Learning lessons from Sri Lanka
The urgent need to ramp up European food production to offset losses due to climate change and the war in Ukraine casts a fresh spotlight on how the EU must hit on the right approach to augment yields without sharply increasing land use. It’s not surprising that a new report adopted by MEPs in April conspicuously left out the ambitious target set last year by the Commission of seeing 25% of agricultural land farmed organically by 2025. Despite the appeal of organic farming, eschewing modern agrochemicals—which thanks to chemical innovation are 98% less toxic than in the past—requires either clearing more land or seeing crop output drop sharply. Indeed, the humanitarian crisis which Sri Lanka is now facing after abruptly banning artificial fertilisers, pesticides and weedicides sent crop yields plummeting has shed an international spotlight on the risks of a too-hasty shift to completely organic farming.
In order to sustainably boost agricultural production, these traditional plant science tools which enabled the Green Revolution of the mid-20th century need to be coupled with the latest agricultural innovations. Precision farming is one of the most promising techniques, using a wide range of technologies – sensors, data analytics tools, GPS mapping software, and drones – to identify the treatments needed to protect crops and manage the fields. For instance, these innovations have already been used by farmers to successfully identify pests, which enables them to use the most effective treatment in a targeted way.
By leveraging precision agriculture, farmers are able to produce more while using fewer resources, as well as reducing the environmental impact of food production. The targeted approach at the centre of precision agriculture allows farmers to use less water and land, thereby reducing deforestation. Being able to correctly identify pests also enables them to use far smaller quantities of pesticides, while the use of data can also save on the use of fertilizer.
But to fully maximize the production capacity of its limited fertile lands, Europe should couple the adoption of precision agriculture with the planting of optimized crops that have a better yield, a development which could significantly increase food production, as evidence from around the world has illustrated. A study conducted last year, for instance, found that the use of drought-tolerant and optimized hybrid crops in South Africa created around 4.6 million extra white maize rations.
Time to walk the talk
Historically reticent to approve these kinds of crops, European institutions are warming up to their potential, with the European Commission suggesting that New Genomic Techniques (NGTs) can contribute to building a more sustainable food system and authorizing two new genetically modified crops just last week. Nevertheless, progress continues to be hampered by political wrangling. When it comes to authorising advances in genetically modified or hybrid crops, for instance, the European Commission’s efforts to streamline the approval process have been systematically frustrated by opposition coming from the Parliament. As a result, it currently takes several years for new agricultural innovations to receive authorization from the European Union, with the average timeline being five to six times longer than that foreseen in the law.
If Europe is serious about delivering upon its Green Deal priorities and protecting food security while reducing the climate footprint of European agriculture, Brussels must take a decisive stand in favour of agricultural innovations. Offering agricultural innovations and technology a viable path towards approval and commercialisation, while continuing to enforce the bloc’s rigorous safety protocols and standards, could have a deeply positive, transformative effect on Europe’s farms.
In drawing the world’s attention to the stark realities of the developing food crisis, Secretary-General Guterres made it clear that widespread shortages can still be averted “if we act together”. His appeal for unity, however, is not only directed at nation-states. Given the gravity of the unfolding crisis, it is just as important to search for avenues for cross-industry collaborations and synergies that can tie academia, NGOs and the private sector together in search of solutions to the critical food supply challenges.
Embracing agricultural innovations would enable Europe to play its part, by alleviating rising global demand and cooling the surging food prices. At the same time, embracing agricultural innovations could trigger a more profound and long-term transition for European farms, making them more productive and environmentally friendly. Europe has an international responsibility to harness the latest agricultural innovations to address the dual scourges of food insecurity and environmental degradation.