Cassman has conducted research on crops for 33 years in almost every major cropping system around the world. For almost 30 years of that time, “it didn’t matter if you chose the right research topic or invested properly in research because we had enough food globally. If policymakers at major universities, USDA or in the international research system made poor decisions on research prioritization, it didn’t matter. There was still enough food.

“As a result, there is a generation of policymakers and decision-makers who established their careers at a time when it didn’t matter, in terms of having enough food, if you were successful at prioritizing research.”

With the global economic downturn, all that has changed in the last three years.

That leads to a question that Cassman says must be asked: “Do we have leaders who have become, in a sense, so unused to rigorously prioritizing research? Do we have leaders in place that can help us do what is necessary quickly? At this point, we can’t afford to make poor decisions in research prioritization.”

Keen to keep from “personal criticism” against any individual, Cassman has a general complaint: “Claims being made — particularly those from seed companies — influence what is being invested in by the public sector. If you’re a legislator deciding where to allocate research funding and are being told by industry that ‘major breakthroughs’ are in the pipeline that will transform agriculture, that’s something you’ll latch onto. If you believe that and have limited funds to allocate, you’ll say, ‘Hey, let’s provide money for this research. Biotech seems like a goldmine and will have a huge payoff.’”

So, with a view towards the long-term, what is the first research priority? Water management? Fertilizer?

It turns out that fertilizer is almost always a limiting factor in many developing nations, says Sinclair. In fact, a study done by the Dutch in the area south of the Sahara was very interesting. You’d figure that water is the key issue. But they applied water in experiments and saw little yield change. When they applied fertilizer and no water, there were yield increases.”

History has shown “yield has been tightly correlated with the amount of fertilizer, particularly nitrogen, available to the crop. I’m told the expense and infrastructure to deal with fertilizers in places like Africa is a great challenge.”

What about soybean, peanut and grain legumes that contribute their own nitrogen? Sinclair has worked on those crops for a long time and says if lack of nitrogen is the ultimate problem, “we should exploit them. We need more effective grain legume production systems.

“I’m also working on an international project largely funded by the Gates Foundation looking at the legume breeding for higher yields in various parts of Africa. Many African researchers are involved and I’ve been impressed with how they operate with so few resources. It’s often agonizing to realize how little they often have to work with.

“Ultimately, we should be able to use the conventional breeding approach, search the germplasm and find plants that do what we want them to. I say, ‘Anytime I’ve looked for a trait I think will improve the crop, I’ve found it in existing genetic material. At this point, there may be limited need to try and figure out how to find new genetic diversity. We already have it. We just need to identify it and use it.’”