One Billion Hungry

November 13, 2009 09:41 AM


Microsoft's Bill Gates supports bio-technology as a tool to boost yields.

A global record will be broken this year, but it's not something to be excited about. The number of hungry people in the world will surpass 1 billion.

That's one-sixth of humanity, and the incidence of malnourishment is increasing daily, warns the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In only 50 years, the world's growing population will require an estimated 100% more food than
we produce today.

This doubled food requirement must come from virtually the same land area as today. Added farmland may help produce 20% of the additional food the planet needs in 2050, according to FAO, while 10% will come from increased cropping intensity.
That means 70% of the world's additional food needs can be produced only with new and existing agricultural technologies, the FAO reports.

"The next Green Revolution must be guided by technology,” says Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is focusing on helping poor farmers grow and sell more crops as a way to reduce world hunger. Gates spoke recently at the World Food Prize Symposium in Des Moines, Iowa.

"When productivity is high, people can farm on less land,” Gates says. "But we will never get there without a continuous and urgent science-based approach.”

Technology is key. Gates says he fears that solutions to the food crisis are being endangered by division. On one side are groups who want to increase technological improvements in crop production, including biotechnology, and on the other side are those fighting for sustainability.

"I believe we can have both,” Gates says. The Gates Foundation is currently working with research partners on drought-tolerant maize, using both conventional crop breeding techniques and biotechnology.

Jeff Simmons, president of Elanco Animal Health, says the challenge of helping millions of people requires asking the question: "Can we afford not to use technologies at our disposal to produce food as efficiently as possible?”

"Those who believe all-natural farming techniques were superior to those used today could not, in many ways, be more mistaken,” Simmons says.

In livestock production, a combination of modern feeding practices and efficiency-enhancing feed additives enables today's cattle producers to use two-thirds less land to produce a pound of beef than it takes to produce a pound from "all-natural” grass-fed cattle, Simmons says. Dairy producers can produce 58% more milk with 64% fewer cows than in 1944, he adds.

"Without advancements in agricultural technology, humanity would likely not have progressed through the 20th century without major famines or devastating food wars,” Simmons says.

Choice abounds. Technology can further help keep food affordable while ensuring maximum consumer choice.

"Organic foods are a fine option for people who can afford to pay a premium for them,” Simmons says. "On a global scale, however, most consumers can't afford to pay such premiums.”

Given the magnitude of the impending food crisis, Simmon says, any efforts to maximize choice and achieve high production efficiencies for all foods deserve the support of everyone in the food chain. The fight to end hunger is hurt by groups who insist that technology in agriculture is not sustainable.

"The fact that one out of six people will go to bed hungry tonight is unacceptable,” Simmons says. "We know how to feed the world.”

You can e-mail Jeanne Bernick at

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