An interview with the founder of Grow Further: Part III

In this interview, the third of a 3-part series, our journalist interviews our founder about the programs of Grow Further.

Grow Further: What are the biggest food security threats the world faces today?

Peter Kelly: According to the UN, last year 828 million people were hungry and 3.1 billion couldn’t afford a healthy diet. Food insecurity is linked to poverty but has become more widespread in recent years in spite of increases in global GDP due to conflict and Covid-19. Looking forward, the global food system is not prepared for various global crisis scenarios, including asteroid strikes, supervolcanoes, nuclear war, or climate change.

Of these, climate change is of course the most likely to happen in the near future–it’s already having measurable, and in some places serious, effects on crop yields and food security. It’s not just about the effects of heat on crops and livestock, but also about floods, droughts, saltwater intrusion, and the spread of tropical pests and diseases. I worked as a research assistant for a project that found that the synergistic effects of climate change and pollution on rice yields in Asia were worse than the sum of their parts. Other studies have found that when carbon dioxide levels increase, crops yield more carbohydrates and fewer other nutrients.

Perhaps most importantly, high temperatures affect people. In the short term, heat waves are associated with lower agricultural worker productivity. In the long term, tropical climates are strongly associated with lower national income, which in turn affects the ability to invest in productive agriculture.

Grow Further: Where can some of the greatest potential for food security research be found? In what areas or technologies?

Peter Kelly: To be honest, I don’t know. And neither does anyone else. The answer to this question is in a sense unknowable in the same way that ‘what’s going to be the hottest stock in the next 10 years’ is unknowable. But others have speculated and I will as well.

Some would point to cutting-edge technologies like plant-based meat, controlled-environment cultivation, and artificial intelligence. The private sector is certainly investing a lot in these areas. But to what extent these technologies will be relevant to smallholder farmers in developing countries, who represent the vast majority of producers worldwide? That’s an open question. Plant-based meat, for instance, can use grain more efficiently than feeding it to animals. But what if animals are grazing in areas too dry to grow grain, eating waste products, or plowing fields? Is it still relevant?

Others might cite moonshot breeding projects in plant sciences, including re-engineering photosynthesis to boost yields or making the yields of perennial grains competitive with those of annual grains (thus avoiding the costs and environmental damage associated with tillage). But these projects may or may not work, and if they do, they won’t address some key areas of food insecurity like micronutrient deficiencies.

I’d argue that the biggest opportunities, especially for the public sector and for research relevant to smallholder farmers, lie in plant and animal species outside of the big four crops (rice, maize, wheat, and soybean) and the major livestock species. These species were domesticated under a different climate than we have today, without a modern understanding of nutrition, and more or less by accident. A major pest outbreak affecting any of them–like the Southern Leaf Blight that devastated the US maize crop in 1970–could have serious implications for food security. There are thousands of other edible plant and animal species–from quinoa to mealworms to seaweed– that might, with a comparable level of scientific and culinary experimentation, be at least as productive, more nutritious, better adapted to a changing climate, more profitable for farmers, lower in allergens, and so forth.

Grow Further: Why is agricultural research funding dominated by a top-down model?

Peter Kelly: Agricultural research isn’t the only type of research with top-down funding, but what sets agriculture apart from other sectors is that there’s a mismatch between the number of research funders (very small) and the diversity of geographic and cultural contexts to which the research is applied (very large). Centralized funding works OK for centralized engineering projects like launching a satellite, but not so well in the social or biological sciences where more decentralized research systems, like those found in the US, have been more successful. In other biological sciences, we have public engagement in medical research and some areas like birdwatching are even dominated by citizen scientists.

Top-down funding in agricultural research is a manifestation of a more general urban bias in philanthropy. Agricultural research at private universities and public-facing agricultural research charities are both close to non-existent, so it’s a fairly extreme manifestation of urban bias. Nonetheless, urban bias in various forms is common throughout the world and there’s a body of literature in economics and political science on its causes that can likely explain what’s happening with agricultural research.

Grow Further: What potential Grow Further-sponsored project or food security innovation excites you the most?

Peter Kelly: This is a tough question. We’re starting to see some really good applications, so it’s like asking, ‘which child do you love the most?’ Also, I don’t want to unduly influence the selection process. 

Grow Further: Why has philanthropy historically focused more on medical research and much less on agricultural research?

Peter Kelly: Governments and major foundations like Gates, Ford, Rockefeller, and Hewlett generally started health programs earlier in their history than agricultural programs, but have for decades had agricultural research programs on par with their medical research programs. Some like McKnight and Howard Buffett have made agriculture a higher priority than medicine. But individuals haven’t had a way to engage.

Why not? Urban bias, or as I cited in a previous interview the existence of unmet opportunities being business as usual in society, are two ways of looking at it. Another is more biological: ecologically speaking, the difference between agriculture and medicine is that humans are higher on the food chain than crops and livestock and lower on the food chain than diseases. Organisms that are higher on the food chain (bugs out to get us) seem more interesting, which we also see in environmental philanthropy in the common bias towards charismatic megafauna.

Grow Further: Where do you see Grow Further a year from now? Five years from now?

Peter Kelly: A year from now, we should have made our first research grants, and begun programs to engage members in a more formal manner than how they’re involved right now. We should also be fully staffed and have met some other organizational development milestones.

In 5 years, we’ll start seeing research results and have had time to scale the organization and get major media coverage. It will likely take a little longer before those research results are widely adopted on farms. This is a long-term endeavor, one that’s going to take decades to show full results at scale. The CGIAR, for instance, started as the Rockefeller Mexican Agriculture Project in 1943 but it wasn’t until about 1970 that it prevented its first famine. In our case, accomplishments for the history books like preventing a climate-related disaster are more like a generation away, not something that’s going to happen within 5 years. The important thing now is that we’ve built a solid organizational foundation and are off to a promising start.

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