There is a growing consensus that we are facing epochal challenges in global food security. Moreover, these challenges are multiple and complex. Meeting these challenges will involve nothing less than a wholesale socio-technical transition of the agri-food system. Optimizing the efficacy of the contribution of research to such a food security agenda will probably also need new institutional mechanisms and career structures to facilitate new kinds of collaborations and ongoing, longer-term projects. In short, the multiple challenges of food security demand a different political economy of research for effective intervention by science. In making this argument, the paper summarizes the major findings of a recent report regarding the potential impact of so-called ‘disruptive’ low-carbon innovations in China.