Beyond Plant Breeding: Agro-Ecological Solutions for Climate-Smart Agriculture


As an agricultural scientist attending The Chicago Council’s Global Food Security Symposium 2014, I was pleased to be surrounded by a diverse group of professionals made up of fellow scientists as well as leaders from a variety of other fields and sectors. It was fascinating to hear from development practitioners, policymakers, and industry leaders about their concerns and potential solutions for a food secure future, including the role they thought scientists and scientific innovation need to play to address climate change.

In the discussions there were numerous calls for greater resource use efficiency and less food waste. I noted, however, that many speakers were focused on plant-oriented solutions, rather than an agro-ecological approach. Panelists appealed to scientists to re-engineer agriculture into something new, beginning with redesigned plants that might grow faster, using fewer resources, and in more diverse environments. I wondered if they were envisioning a “Green Revolution: Part 2,” in which plant breeders once again save the day with miracle plants.

Norman Borlaug’s redesigned wheat and corn were landmark events in the evolution of agricultural development, but we should avoid letting this momentous achievement narrow our vision of what future progress might look like. Like the Green Revolution, breeders of today are also tasked with averting massive famines among swelling populations, while the challenges of climate change make their success even more complex.

In many ways, the Green Revolution homogenized agriculture throughout the world. But today, plant breeding efforts need to increase yields while also accounting for a multitude of adverse environmental conditions, as opposed to previous assumptions about the availability of copious fertilizer and water resources. Many of the traits required of climate change resilient plants—such as salinity and drought tolerance—require highly intensive breeding efforts and will take years to produce results.

New crop varieties and traits have a substantial role to play in unlocking agriculture from its current constraints, but agro-ecological and systems-oriented work must be the other half of the equation. There should be an equally clear mandate for those field agronomists, soil scientists, entomologists, and irrigation experts who are also striving to maintain or increase agricultural productivity even as the climate changes around them.

The lack of such clear mandates at the Symposium is likely due to the fact that it is difficult to be specific about system-wide modifications. It is hard to measure all the efficiency gains that come from an improved agro-ecology and hard to balance social, economic, and environmental outcomes, but it's much simpler to discuss and envision targeted solutions for a particular crop.

Funding agencies also seem focused on individuals crops, rather than the system as a whole: designing projects around priority crops appears to be the preferred approach. But if we scale down to the plant and forget about the agro-ecosystem that plant is growing in, then we miss an opportunity to create a streamlined, efficient agricultural system that can serve us well into the future.

The crops that would comprise a “Climate-Smart Agricultural Revolution” will need to yield more while conserving natural resources. But we cannot forget that there are many ways to improve efficiencies and conserve natural resources. I hope we find a way soon to highlight the role agro-ecological research and solutions can play in climate-smart agriculture, so they can garner equal attention.