The Future of Food: Technology Critical

June 14, 2012 10:17 AM

In a unique partnership among the Washington Post, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the “Future of Food: Food Security in the 21st Century” was debated and dissected in a 5 ½ hour conference starting this morning.

More than 300 on-site participants and untold more at their computer screens nationwide watched the live-streamed event from the first-floor conference room of the Washington Post in downtown Washington, DC.
At issue: How to feed an expected 9 billion people by the year 2050 in a world that already struggles to feed the current 7 billion. “It’s really very simple. In the next 40 years, we will have to produce as much food in the world as we have in the last 8,000,” says Jason Clay, senior vice president of the World Wildlife Fund.
“We will [eventually] get this right. We can do it orderly or through disruption,” adds Chris Policinski, president of Land O’Lake Cooperative.
And therein lies the crux of the matter. Some food advocates have touted locally-produced, organic food production as the key to improved productivity and nutrition. Those in commercial agriculture argue that increased productivity and efficient land use will be the only way to feed the equivalent of the population of nearly two more Chinas by 2050.
The debate Wednesday leaned heavily toward reliance on commercial agriculture, calls for more research and development, and third world countries doing what they can to increase productivity. “The reality is we need both. It’s not a question of organic or conventional, technology or no technology, big or small. It needs to be inclusive. We need organic and conventional, big and small producers,” says Policinski.  
“I think you can produce food in cities—vegetables, fruit, livestock and fish—but not calories. You need land to grow corn and wheat and rice, and you have to be realistic about what the science is,” says Clay.
Driving all of this was the recognition that the world is already using most of its arable land, and will only be able to expand that land base by 10% without cutting down even more forests, jeopardizing global biodiversity and accelerating climate change even faster.
There were several key messages that emerged as part of the solution to the potential food crisis.
1.      Reduce waste. Currently, one of every three calories of food produced is never consumed. In developing countries, this waste comes from post-harvest losses through storage and transport. In developed countries, it’s food that is left on the plate or thrown away after a week in the refrigerator.
2.      Avoid over consumption. While a billion people go to bed hungry each night, another billion people are consuming 500 more calories per day they do not need. This in turn creates long-term health issues such as obesity and diabetes that further strain resources.
3.      Use best practices. Too few farmers, particularly in developing countries, use best practices to produce food, says Samuel Allen, chairman and CEO of Deere and Company. “In India, if 50,000 farmers used best practices on their 50,000 hectares, they could have a three-fold increase in food production and economic output,” he says.  
4.      Use technology. Use of GPS and auto-steer technology in the developed world allows farmers to precisely plant, fertilize and protect crops from insects and weeds while avoiding over-lapping applications. On a 60’ boom applicator, for example, John Deere now has the capability to regulate the rate of application every 10’ to precisely meet soil types. Root zone moisture probes now can signal when crops need irrigation.
5.      Consumer education. Dairy producer Mike McCloskey, who operates Fair Oaks Farm in Indiana, has built an agri-tourist destination center that hosted some 500,000 visitors last year. He says that producers must be open, honest and transparent about what they do on their operations. “Affordable and abundant nutrition is driven by technology,” he says. No-till planting, GMO seeds, the use of a manure digester to produce both electricity and truck fuel all improve efficiency and reduce cost, which drives down consumer prices.
More information on the Future of Food Conference can be found here.

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