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Better late than never

Ecologist Gordon Conway has spent decades trying to work out how science can help feed the world. As food prices spike, Europe is belatedly following his lead, says Ehsan Masood.

One of Gordon Conway’s skills is in picking the right moment to intervene in a controversy. His classic 1999 book The Doubly Green Revolution: Food for all in the 21st century so impressed Bill Gates that he made its ideas the basis of the Gates Foundation’s agriculture research programme and funded the ecologist and former Rockefeller Foundation president to set up an office at Imperial College London.

While chief scientist at the Department for International Development from 2004 to 2009, Conway managed to extract £200 million annually for R&D. He also persuaded Monsanto to drop its Terminator gene technology, which prevented farmers from saving seeds, and he helped create the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, which acts as a knowledge transfer office for scientists across the continent.

So it’s significant that Conway has a new book out—One Billion Hungry: Can we feed the world?—which was launched at a party in London on 8 October.

As Conway pointed out to me that night, we are now in a world of rising food prices punctuated by spikes, contributing to civil unrest in countries including Mexico and Mozambique. Price rises are being caused by a mix of factors including demand for land for biofuels, shorter growing seasons owing to climate change, panic buying, commodity speculation and the emerging world’s growing appetite for meat. When prices come back down, the new low tends to be much higher than previously.

Conway’s mission at Imperial is to persuade European Union member states to do their bit for food security by reviving their passion for agricultural research, and in the process persuade citizens to accept genetically modified technology in food­—if not in their own countries, then at least as a tool to combat hunger.

How successful he has been at the European level is hard to say. In recent years, policies to alleviate hunger have focused more on issues of governance and infrastructure than science. But in the UK at least, agricultural research, which has spent many years as a Cinderella science, is back on the policy diary.

Prime Minister David Cameron hosted a hunger summit with Brazil at the end of the London Olympics and has declared that the topic will be on the UK’s agenda when it takes charge of the G8 for a year in January.

The government is also preparing an agricultural research strategy, expected within the next six months. George Freeman, the Conservative MP charged with devising the strategy, says that the policy may even be backed with new money [see related article].

In Europe, hunger will be one of Ireland’s agenda items during its six-month presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2013. Given the state of Europe’s finances, it is not clear whether these policies and strategies will lead to new money. Policymakers could do worse than seek advice from Conway, who is adept at marrying good ideas with a modest amount of money.

If Europe does get behind agricultural research, it will be good news for Africa’s scientists, many of whom receive support from collaborations with European colleagues.

It would also add to the momentum Africa is already giving to its own scientists. While Europe has been taking time to get serious about agricultural research, Africa’s scientists have been building and improving their base of knowledge and expertise, particularly in the area of biofortification. Experiments are underway in several countries to fortify crops such as sorghum and cassava with micronutrients.

Another attendee at the London event, the Harvard-based development expert Calestous Juma, said that one reason for this interest is that the African Union now has eight heads of state who trained in science, engineering or medicine, up from three in 2005. Africa’s political leaders are hungry for new knowledge and ideas, he said, and willing to fund them.

But if the sun seems to be rising on African agricultural research, one grandee at Conway’s launch, the philanthropist Mo Ibrahim, sounded a note of caution. The pendulum, he said, should not swing too far from social towards technological solutions. Countries also need proper land tenure for farmers, investment in infrastructure and the creation of a genuine single market.

“You can drive a [food] truck from Germany to Scotland without stopping,” Ibrahim said. “But if you tried to drive [across Africa] you would have to stop so many times that the food would perish.”

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