June 30, 2011, by brzjch

Mark Twain got it wrong

Mark Twain famously observed, “buy land, they’re not making it anymore”.  I am not sure what he would have made of the news today from Nottingham’s Malaysian campus that that it is to co- host the first ever Crops for the Future Research Centre (CFFRC) in partnership with the Government of Malaysia. The Centre is intended to research and evaluate underutilised crops from all corners of the world and to find out which crops have the potential to be grown for food or non-food uses such as fuel, fibre or for their medicinal properties.

Mark Twain’s apparent wisdom flies in the face of the results of scientific research and the adoption of new techniques in food production in the last Century.  The fact is that we have been creating significantly new amounts of ‘land’ (or yield per hectare) through the application of science for almost 200 years – since the time that Mendel made his first observations about peas in the mid 19th Century. Mendel, of course, is often described as the father of modern genetics and that is one clue as to why I think Mark Twain got it wrong. The statistics on the yield improvements that flow from the application of genetics are impressive.

Genetic selection has improved the feed conversion ratio of the poultry sector by 200 grams per kg of feed in the last decade. If we translated this into a global impact this is roughly the same as 30 million tonnes of cereals per annum or around 4 million hectares of cultivated land. Similar calculations can be made for pigs, beef cattle, dairy cows, wheat, maize, etc, etc. Genetics, as applied to farm production has increased efficiency and allowed us to produce more from less land area. We have, in effect, created more land through the application of science.

 The Crops for the Future Research Centre in Malaysia is just at the beginning of a research effort that, I am sure, will pay similar dividends. A greater diversity of products being produced using less resources and crops – and thus will create more land. The improvement in welfare and living standards that comes from the application of science in this way needs to be recognized for what it is – a way of extending the planet’s resources or releasing resources for other uses. Perhaps, if Mark Twain was writing today and he was aware of the work that the CFFC will be doing he might accept another version of his words, “buy science, it’s a way of making more land”.

For more information on Crops for the Future visit www.nottingham.edu.my/Research/CFFRC/index.aspx

John Strak is Special Professor of Food Economics in the School of Economics at The University of Nottingham, Editor of Whole Hog Brief, Managing Director of FoodEast Ltd and (previously) Managing Director of North Highland Products.

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