The role of innovation in feeding the world


Remarks by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General, at the Working Dinner of the OECD Agriculture Ministerial Meeting 2010.

Ministers, ladies and gentlemen,

Agriculture is at the root of all human civilisations. And from the very beginning, it was driven by innovation. One can argue that agriculture itself was our first major innovation!

Innovation allowed us to continuously increase our ability to produce food for growing populations. We are six billion today, going into seven. And there is no reason to think innovation will stop.

True, the task of feeding an additional couple of billion people in the midst of water scarcity, limited land availability and climate change, looks daunting. But the good news is that most of the knowledge we need to make it happen already exists.

Knowledge diffusion
For instance, in many developing countries, the dissemination of existing technologies and more widespread adoption of available knowledge could increase yields very significantly. This can have a very substantive impact on development. Innovation in agriculture can be a key driver of poverty reduction in poor rural economies.

The impact on the environment could also be major. We know how to use water more efficiently and less wastefully. This includes drip irrigation systems, desalination, recycling, or drought-resistant plants. We have seen win-win situations in which farmers have been able to improve profitability by using less fertilizer and pesticides, with little or no fall in yields, through the adoption of new methods.

But some of this knowledge is not applied enough. There is definitely some work to be done to ensure that technology is properly diffused and adopted.

International cooperation and the development of extension and advisory services are vital ingredients in ensuring that innovations are widely applied. Effective incentives and delivery mechanisms are needed to transfer technology and “know how” to where they can be employed, particularly in developing countries. And evidence shows that open markets facilitate the sharing and dissemination of technologies.

Another important policy lesson is that providing affordable access to communications technologies is vital to accessing knowledge, triggering local innovations, and boosting rural development beyond agriculture. The widespread use of communications technologies has enabled delivery of services to rural areas. For example, in rural areas of India or Africa, farmers often have to make an arduous trek into town to sell their products. Sometimes they missed the right moment because they were not aware of market developments. Now they have a better chance to know what is happening and act accordingly.

Even in more developed countries, communications technology has empowered farmers to make better informed decisions on planting, harvesting and selling. Thus, the communication revolution has led to better knowledge diffusion in agriculture.

There are also some important policy issues related to regulation, intellectual property rights and public acceptance of new technologies that governments need to pay attention to in order to realise the full potential of existing knowledge. Institutions, regulations and policies should ensure a balanced system of intellectual property rights protection that provides adequate incentives for investors but at the same time enables technology diffusion.

Last but not least, government policies can create the appropriate incentives and disincentives to reduce waste, to allow us to make better use of what is produced. As much as one-third of food “disappearance” has been estimated as “waste”. Waste occurs all along the food chain, from the primary producer to the consumer: at the farm level, in the storage and distribution system, in food services, and at home. Innovative solutions to address this issue could take many forms, from better use of technology in production, transportation and marketing, to small changes in individual consumer behaviour.

Knowledge creation
Beyond this focus on diffusion of knowledge, we should not forget the importance of research and development of new technologies. On the contrary, a constant effort will be needed from governments and the private sector, as new technologies take time to develop, to test and to apply. The potential returns to R&D are enormous.  In areas such as biotechnology, and climate change mitigation and adaptation, scientific progress with great potential is occurring throughout the world.

Striking recent examples of innovation can be found in water management in Israel or Australia, changes in animal diet in New Zealand which help reduce methane emissions, or the development of more heat-resistant horticulture in Korea. This type of progress could be accelerated through public-private partnerships. National and international initiatives linking systems of agricultural research in collaborative networks also have great potential.

Citizens’ trust
But “good science” alone is not sufficient. Mutual trust has to be built up between citizens and science to facilitate the understanding and acceptance of new technologies. This has been particularly problematic in relation to food and agriculture where sometimes the science is disputed or consumers are wary of new developments. GMOs are a case in point. There is a major role for governments to help build this trust, from applying good regulations to engaging and informing consumers.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Innovation in agriculture is an exciting, promising and necessary topic. I hope our discussions this evening and tomorrow will be fruitful and that you will take home the seeds of great things to come.

Thank you.


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