I recently had the honor of participating in a panel discussion hosted by Net Impact and CollaborateUp to share my views and to participate in a productive discussion about ways people and organizations can work together to assure we meet the food needs of a growing population.
Growing up and working on a farm in northwestern South Dakota, I consider myself fortunate. That’s because only 2 percent of the U.S. population has direct involvement in agriculture. So rather than real-life experience, many people’s perceptions of farming often are formed by media and activist positions on issues that resonate with the public. Regardless of connection to agriculture and perceptions, people around the world have benefited from remarkable advances in agricultural productivity and sustainability.
Using fewer crop acres today than in the past 70 years, farm outputs have grown 270 percent during this timeframe with an actual decline in total inputs. We now feed more than twice as many people in the U.S., and have increased our agricultural exports with fewer inputs than we used 80 years ago. The average farmer feeds 155 people today vs. only 19 in 1940. These increases in productivity are due to technological advancement: improvements in equipment, fertilization, crop chemistries for weed and pest control, breeding of higher-yielding varieties, irrigation improvements, and more recently, biotechnology and precision farming. Genetically engineered crops have been used in agriculture for almost 20 years and, according to a meta-analysis of 145 studies reported by Klumper in 2014, have resulted in a 22 percent increase in grower yield, a 37 percent reduction in pesticide, and a 68 percent increase in grower profits vs. the alternative conventional crops.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 60-70 percent more food will be required annually than is produced today to feed the world in 2050. Rather than converting existing forests, jungles or rangelands into new farmland, the alternative is to intensify the agricultural practices being deployed on the existing cropland to meet most of the food demand growth. Sustainable intensification of existing farming practices to increase agricultural productivity depends on adaptation of agricultural innovation to developing regions and on continuing innovation capacity. We must engage in intelligent and informed evaluation of the available agricultural practices and innovations to achieve this as responsibly as possible. This is where the SolutionLabs can provide tremendous value – engaging young people to gather fresh perspectives on and potential solutions to the issues facing agriculture.
So how can the agriculture industry contribute? As a plant breeder at Monsanto, I can share our perspective. Although Monsanto is widely known as a biotechnology company, we invest more money on plant breeding than we do on biotechnology. We were early investors in advanced breeding techniques and in IT systems to help breeders improve their speed and efficiency of breeding better crop varieties, later applying this to vegetable crops. Today, this still helps our breeders more efficiently select for hundreds of key attributes, like disease resistance, productivity traits, shelf-life improvements to reduce food waste, and consumer quality traits, such as flavor and nutrition. Such improvements help to meet the needs of our farmer-customers in their quest to produce more abundant food, using fewer inputs and in a way that assures the sustainability of their multi-generation family farms. And in the vegetable breeding space, we also can help to improve the appeal and quality of vegetables to consumers so they might be better inclined to eat more healthful food.
Improved seed is a wonderful contribution to intensification of food production on existing agricultural land. Technology has been critical to the profound productivity growth in agriculture and it will remain critical in the future. We need to embrace agricultural technology to intensify farming and maximize productivity of existing farmlands in a sustainable manner that enables us to meet the world’s food demands well into the future.