13-14 December 2021, Canberra
Advisor, Global Commission on Adaptation at World Resources Institute
Dr. Rob Horsch recently retired from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which he joined as a deputy director in November 2006 to develop and lead the science and technology initiative of the agricultural development program. He recruited and managed a team of program officers and other staff that made and managed a large and diverse portfolio of research and development grants aimed at improving the productivity of small holder farmers by improving the crops that poor farmers raise, and poor consumers eat. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research and the 2 Blades Foundation, and as an Advisor to the Global Commission on Adaptation and to the Global Farmer Network.
Rob is a leader in the effort to create agricultural technologies that help improve yields and incomes for farmers around the world. He joined Monsanto in 1981 and led the company’s plant tissue culture and transformation efforts until 1995. In that capacity, he contributed to the development of the Bollgard, Yieldgard, and Roundup Ready traits in broad use today and directed an expanding research group to apply genetic transformation technology to many important crops, including potato, tomato, cotton, soybean, corn and wheat. From 1996 to 2005 he led the company’s programs for International Development Partnerships with responsibility to help small-holder farmers in developing countries gain access to better agricultural products and technologies.
Rob received his Ph.D. in Genetics at the University of California, Riverside, in 1979, and then conducted postdoctoral work in plant physiology at the University of Saskatchewan. He has served on the editorial boards of several leading journals in the plant sciences and as an advisor to the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. He served as a member of the Millennium Development Goals Hunger Task force and has been active in international agricultural development projects for the past 25 years. He was awarded the 1998 National Medal of Technology by President Clinton for contributions to the development of agricultural biotechnology.
Ongoing contributions of agriculture to human health and wellbeing face major risks. Extreme poverty per se and ineffective policies for development, trade and regulations are the largest risk multipliers, with abiotic and biotic stresses being the major risk drivers. Prevention, effective response, and innovation are the key risk mitigation factors. Tools and technology for 1) monitoring, modeling and predicting risk emergence, 2) deploying, tracking and optimizing existing solutions, and 3) on-going innovations for better tools and solutions are keys to future proofing our agricultural system.
I propose focusing on overall water use efficiency as the normalizing basis for quantitative tracking and prioritization of progress and setbacks. Yeildgap.org is an excellent resource for tracking realized harvest vs. water-limited potential harvest. Poor soil fertility in developing countries and pests/pathogens everywhere are the major limitations on agriculture using existing best practices. Soil fertility can be readily solved, the future will be limited primarily by pests and pathogens and increasing abiotic stresses.
Recent case studies from Africa illustrate the situation. Maize lethal necrosis virus erupted suddenly in East Africa and exposed a vulnerability in the local seed system which, once understood, was then remedied. Cassava mosaic disease is an on-going and spreading problem that threatens much of Africa’s cassava crop. Despite excellent progress in tracking, modelling and development of solutions, it remains a major threat due to slow progress in deployment of new resistant varieties and cooperation within and across country borders to contain the outbreak. New strains of wheat rust have emerged in eastern Africa and spread around most of the world. Deployment of single resistance genes have led to progressive loss of their effectiveness, complicating efforts to build a more durable resistance package. Molecular efforts to splice together multi-gene packages and using synthetic biology to create new resistance genes not found in germplasm collections promise a more robust and durable solution.