The Drive to Innovate

January 3, 2014 06:05 PM
The Drive to Innovate

What will it take to feed the world by 2050?

Figuring out what it will take to feed the world by 2050 preoccupies national security analysts on a daily basis. How is the world going to feed a population expected to mushroom from 7.1 billion to 9.6 billion in the next 37 years?

Speaker after speaker at the Farm Journal Forum, held in December in Washington D.C., provided at least partial answers to one of the most important questions of our age. Presenters made it clear that it’s going to take expertise from many disciplines to develop a viable blueprint for feeding an additional 2.5 billion mouths, many of them in the poorest countries.

Agricultural productivity needs to accelerate around the globe. As Dr. Robert Thompson, a senior fellow with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, pointed out, land devoted to farming might increase by 10% at most during this period before compromising environment goals such as the destruction of wildlife habitat and forests. Agriculture, which already uses 70% of the world’s fresh water, will be increasingly competing with burgeoning urban populations for scarce water resources.

Innovation will be the key, speakers emphasized. Seed companies must develop varieties that produce high yields with less water, especially since many of the 2.5 billion newcomers to the planet will live in the arid regions of Africa and Southeast Asia.

The previous 20 years of advances will "fuel decades and decades of advancement," said keynote speaker Robert T. Fraley, executive vice president and chief technology officer of Monsanto Company. Noting that "we understand all 33,000 genes in a corn plant ... we understand the genetics of corn and soybeans so precisely that you can figure out which field it performs best in," he said.Feeding a growing world will be easier since crop breeding has become a global industry. Biotech seed was planted by more than 17 million farmers in 28 countries in 2012 on more than 400 million acres, Fraley reported. "That’s about 20% of the world’s farmland."

In developing countries, farmers are using communication technology to make key decisions. For instance, vital information, such as wind changes or moth flight, can be delivered via cellphones to farmers in India, Fraley said.

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The Farm Journal Forum program included a live production of "AgriTalk," hosted by  Mike Adams, center. Sarah Bittleman with the EPA and Jack Bobo with the U.S. Department of State were guests. Above, Adams presses Bittleman on EPA’s increasingly rocky relationship with agriculture.

Meanwhile, U.S. farmers need to get over a reluctance to do things differently, said Kip Tom, managing partner of Tom Farms. The Leesburg, Ind., farmer practices what he preaches. This summer, he flew drones over his farm to provide a real-time analysis of crop conditions. He varies irrigation by how much water the soil can hold and its organic content, and he adjusts inputs based on field conditions.

During harvest this year, combines transmitted data into the cloud. "We knew instantly when a field was completed, how many bushels came off it and how productive it was," Tom said.

The next big development in precision ag will be providing real-time information for decision making, said Karen Oerter, director of market and consumer insight for Winfield Solutions. It’s not enough to provide historical information. Farmers, she said, want to know what to do now. What’s the best course of action to optimize yield?

Iowa farmer Dave Nelson said that farmers will be under pressure to conserve natural resources in the future, even as they chase higher yields. He is already doing what he can to target nutrient and herbicide applications.

"I don’t think that one day you will need a permit to farm. But we’re very scared that one day we may be told how to farm, in terms of nutrient management," Nelson said.

During the event, Mike Adams,  host of "AgriTalk," raised that issue in a live interview with Sarah Bittleman, senior agricultural counselor for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Farmers, he said, are concerned that they might fall victim to sweeping regulations in the name of climate change. "Will that happen?" he pointedly asked.

Without answering the question directly, Bittleman asked farmers to share their stories with EPA on how they battle climatic events, such as the 2012 drought. "There’s some extraordinary stuff going on in agriculture that is innovative and so forward looking," she said.

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USAID’s Tjada D’Oyen McKenna outlined the Obama administration’s efforts through Feed the Future to assist small-holder farmers.

Sharing for the good of all. Agriculture faces another equally daunting challenge with national security impli­cations: world poverty. There are 1.2 billion people around the world who live on less than $1.25 a day, Thompson said. One out of every eight people in the world lacks the purchasing power to access even 1,800 calories a day, the number needed for the median level of physical activity.

Tjada D’Oyen McKenna, deputy director of development for USAID’s Feed the Future initiative, brought the audience up to date on the federal government’s global hunger and food security efforts. Part of this group’s mission is to share agricultural innovation and practices with small-holder farmers in developing nations.

"There are technologies today available to help farmers adapt to climate change to improve water management," she said. "Yet these technologies are not getting to the farmers that we serve at Feed the Future. The main hybrid maize in use in Kenya today dates from 1986. In Ghana, the main open-pollinated maize variety dates from the 1980s."
A bright future.
Growing demand and affluence during the past decade have lifted corn, soybean and wheat demand, despite a significant increase in prices, said Bruce Scherr, chairman and CEO of Informa Economics. He said agriculture might be at the brink of one of its strongest periods in history.  Strong future demand for food coupled with lower prices imply an increase in consumption. But will it be a modest one or a surge? He favors the latter view, based on continued strong demand from China and questions about whether the U.S. and South America can meet that demand.

But the bigger question is whether farmers will succeed in their mission to feed a growing population. There’s a lot of work that remains to be done. 

"We need to maximize the genetic potential of crops," Thompson said. "We need to feed those crops as well as possible without overfeeding them. We need to minimize competition from weeds for sunlight, water and nutrients and minimize losses from insects and disease. We need to optimize water controls and minimize post-harvest losses."

Hosted in partnership with Informa Economics, the event was made possible by support from premier sponsor Monsanto and supporting sponsors:  AdFarm, Charleston|Orwig, CropLife America, DuPont and SFP in association with Farmers Feeding the World. 

You can e-mail Boyce Thompson at

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