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Food Security, Climate Change and IP Rights

June 2011

Realizing our potential to produce enough food for the world’s expanding population will remain a major challenge in the future and one in which intellectual property (IP) rights will play a key role. Dr. Alois Leidwein, Director for Research Coordination, Cooperation & Innovation, the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Safety (AGES) explores the various dimensions of the food security challenge.

Future scenarios

By 2050, the global population is expected to reach 8.9 billion1 and average per capita food consumption to rise above 3,100 kcal per day, with increased consumption of livestock products. This anticipated 40 percent increase in global population will require a 70 percent increase in agricultural productivity, with a further expansion in crop production to support the increased demand for livestock products. How can this be achieved?

Maintaining and using this reservoir of
genetic diversity will be the foundation of
coping with climate change. (Photo:
FAO/Alessandra Benedetti)

The potential to bring new land into agricultural production is limited. At present, some 1,600 million hectares are under cultivation globally. By 2050, this is expected to rise by just 5 percent (70 million hectares) with the bulk of expansion likely to occur in sub-saharan Africa and Latin America. A word of warning, however – introducing changes in land use requires great caution to avoid irreparable damage to, or the collapse of, ecological systems.

Ninety percent of the required increase in global food production will, therefore, need to come from intensified farming practices and higher yields. But this needs to be done in a sustainable way.

How to boost agricultural production?

Data on global crop yields show that, in some regions, many varieties are producing only 30 to 35 percent of what could be agro-ecologically attainable2. Average yields in countries with comparable climate and agricultural production potential can differ by as much as 100 per cent, mainly because agricultural income is insufficient to finance inputs, such as fertilizer, plant protection and infrastructure, needed for increased production.

Increased financial resources for those inputs would boost production relatively quickly, especially in countries with developed agricultural structures3. In many regions, however, even the higher farm-gate prices witnessed in 2008 and 2010 were insufficient to stimulate increased agricultural investment. Farm prices need to double in real terms to ensure sustainable growth in agricultural production for future food security. There is, however, no silver bullet solution, and other policy approaches might be more relevant for net food importing countries and those with relatively underdeveloped agricultural sectors.

Farmers will increase production if it pays. Seventy percent of the world’s poor are farmers or farm workers; rising agricultural prices will help them escape poverty in the medium term. An economically viable agricultural sector where farmers benefit from higher prices and start investing in agricultural services boosts the broader economy.

Steering an even course to minimize the volatility of agricultural markets is a key challenge for agricultural policy-makers. High prices resulting from food shortages are a threat to social stability just as low market prices resulting from oversupply are a threat to agriculture. Smart and pragmatic solutions that are tailored to the particular circumstances of a given country are essential to this task.

Innovating in the face of finite resources and climate change

Modern agriculture depends on fossil fuels for the energy and fertilizers it uses. Given the finite nature of these resources, the only way to increase yields is to enhance efficiency through innovation.

Finding effective alternatives to fossil fuels, for example, is crucial. There is no getting around the fact that agriculture will have to produce its own energy in the future. A key challenge is how to enhance the energy efficiency of biofuels so they become an attractive alternative to fossil fuels in high-input systems and to draft animals in low-input or subsistence agricultural systems.

Greater efficiency in the application and use of nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers4, and efficient recycling of wastes containing them are other key areas for innovation. Crop rotation systems that produce green manure in combination with biological nitrogen fixation offer yet another possible way forward in intensifying production. Biotech solutions such as these will help ensure food security and support climate change mitigation and adaptation in the longer term.

Hardest hit by the challenges of climate
change will be rainfed agriculture which
covers 96 percent of all cultivated land in
sub-saharan Africa, 87 percent in South
America and 61 percent in Asia. Where
stability of production cannot be maintained,
people will be forced to migrate.  (
Photo:  FAO/Giulio Napolitano)

Climate change is likely to compound the challenges confronting agriculture: more erratic climatic conditions; new plant pests and animal diseases; and increased biotic and abiotic stresses on plants may arise as different regions become drier or wetter and less suited to established agricultural practices.

In this context, plant breeding will become increasingly important to ensure that crops are adapted to more challenging environmental conditions. Greater efficiency will also be required in animal production for improved feed conversion rates, efficient use of sewage nutrients and lower methane emissions. Innovation is the key to progress in each of these areas.

Plant breeders have enjoyed remarkable success in increasing the productivity of key crops. From 1960, crop yields have increased globally by 77 percent and in developing countries by 70 percent. Improved soil management and crop rotation systems, fertilization, and plant protection have helped to exploit the genetic potential of new varieties provided by plant breeding.

Sustained agricultural production will also require a re-evaluation by breeders of the merits of crops that are currently considered minor but which may be well suited to biomass production. The natural genetic potential of maize, for example, is all but exhausted. Its high productivity has made it a popular crop for food, feed and bio-fuels but this has resulted in maize monocultures that are increasingly susceptible to pests and disease. An overriding focus on maize breeding in the past has diverted attention away from exploring the genetic potential of other crops for bio-energy production.

Genetically modified (GM) crops and SMART5 breeding have a key role to play in accelerating breeding activities on the one hand and adapting plants for enhanced biotic or abiotic stress tolerance and use on marginal soils, on the other hand.

Better varieties, healthy seeds and propagation material, operational sanitary and phytosanitary systems, effective pest management systems and farming techniques, fertilization and trained farm personnel are critically important for food security. Enhanced food security also requires effective regulatory frameworks for agriculture in areas such as soil and water management, plant variety protection, land tenure, market intervention including public storage, traceability and geographical indications. As the global population peaks, the impact of climate change plays out, and food security issues dominate political discourse, governments may also need to review international trade regulations and support measures.

Intellectual property questions

The challenge of securing the world’s food supply calls for further research and incentives to develop innovative agricultural solutions. The revenue potential of intellectual property (IP) rights is a key driver of innovation. In the sphere of agriculture, patent law, plant variety protection rights (breeder’s rights) and rights over genetic resources6 are particularly relevant.

To ensure global food security, agricultural innovations need to be affordable and farmers need an incentive to adopt them – in sum, the economic benefit of using these technologies needs to outweigh their cost. While some commentators argue that this does not necessarily translate into higher prices per unit of farm produce, it seems clear that if farmers’ incomes do not rise in real terms then they will be unable to pay for the new technologies and new varieties required to boost agricultural productivity. If farm-gate prices stagnate the question of access to these technologies is likely to become the subject of hot public debate.

Rising levels of food insecurity are likely to intensify debates about the patenting of seeds and fuel calls for compulsory licensing provisions akin to those established to deal with public health crises. Similar debates may also ensue in relation to products that protect plants against pests and disease.

Any debate on seeds must consider the UPOV7 system and its flexibilities which reside in exceptions to the breeder’s right8. The exception to the breeder’s right to use protected varieties to breed new varieties without the authorization of the right holder accelerates breeding and innovation. The so-called “farmers’ privilege” which UPOV members have the option to introduce into their national legislation can, however, be a double-edged sword. While it sounds reasonable that a small farmer should be able to use seeds produced on his or her own farm without paying a licence fee, excessive use of this exception can have serious implications for plant breeders and their ability to develop locally adapted varieties. Finding the appropriate balance is a thorny but necessary question for agricultural policy-makers.

The provisions of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGR) introduce an important perspective to this question. They seek to establish a concrete balance between access to biodiversity for incremental innovation and benefit-sharing to reward farmers for on-farm conservation and management of such biodiversity. The principal aim of the ITPGR is to “facilitate the exchange of seeds and other germplasm for research, breeding, and crop development.”9 It essentially creates a multilateral gene pool. Those creating commercial products that incorporate its plant genetic resources must pay a percentage of their profits into a fund used to promote conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources except when such a product is available without restriction to others for further research and breeding (e.g. plant varieties protected according to the UPOV system). In such a case a voluntary payment is encouraged. The financial viability of the system hinges on the ability of private parties to be able to create and commercialize derivative products using the bank’s materials. In sum, the treaty seeks to manage the intellectual property associated with a defined set of genetic resources resulting from a combination of collective and individual innovation to conserve a public good.

The importance of offering incentives to develop the innovative new technologies that will enable us to meet the challenge of food security in a context of climate change and rapid population growth cannot be overstated. The intellectual property system will, without doubt, have a key role to play in providing the incentives to foster the innovation required if we are to meet this challenge.

1  Technical paper by Jelle Bruinsma from the Expert Meeting on How to Feed the World in 2050, FAO, Rome, June 24-26, 2009
World Agriculture: towards 2015/2030, chapter 11, 2003, FAO
3  Cairns Group, Eastern Europe and Russia
4  Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are essential for food production and quality.
5  SMART=Selection with Markers and Advanced Reproductive Technologies
6  International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture; the Convention on Biological Diversity.
7  UPOV – The International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants
8  Art 15 (1) iii UPOV Convention 1991


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