(Originally posted on LinkedIn)
I had the privilege last week to speak at the Farm & Table event in New Orleans on modern ag’s role in addressing food security. Every time I speak on this topic it’s always a sobering reminder of the paradoxical challenges of food availability – in some parts of our world people are chronically undernourished and food production faces immense challenges, while in other places we are addressing rising rates of obesity and mounting amounts of food waste.
While there’s no single solution to the growing food security and availability challenges, there are multiple actions we can take, both individually and societally, that can go a long way toward ensuring that more people have access to a healthy, balanced diet.
A large portion of the discussion at the event centered around three key areas that can make the most difference to increase food security, both for today and for the years ahead.
1. Continued Advancement and Adoption of Modern Agriculture
Today’s farmers are facing many challenges beyond food demand. A growing population, water availability and climate change are all increasingly challenging conditions farmers must deal with as they work to sustainably grow their crops. Farmers will need to a feed a population of nearly 10 billion people by 2050, which will require a 60-100 percent increase in global food production, and they’ll need to do it on less land, using less water and less energy.
We’ll need a full array of modern agricultural tools to help farmers grow more food using fewer natural resources. This is an even greater concern when you consider that in the United States less than 2 percent of the population is providing food for the remaining 98 percent. Years ago it wasn’t uncommon to grow up on a farm, but today our country depends on that small number of farmers to supply us with our food.
Good news is, we continue to make great progress increasing farming efficiency with innovative ag tools, like plant breeding and biotechnology, crop protection and the rapidly emerging discipline of digital agriculture. When combined, these tools provide farmers with the best possible seeds in the best possible growing environments, along with the data-driven insights that help them make the best possible decisions at every step from planting to harvest.
Biotechnology is one critical tool that has made a huge impact on food security. In addition to increasing crop yields, genetically modified crops make farming more productive by controlling damage and losses from insects and weeds – which are two of the major causes of crop loss and food waste. Genetic modification has also been used to save some crops, like the Hawaiian papaya, from being completely destroyed by disease.
2. Better Infrastructure to Reduce Food Spoilage
Recent studies estimate that one-third of the food – approximately 1.3 billion tons – that is produced in the world is wasted rather than consumed. In the developing world, much of that loss is attributed to lack of improper storage and transportation that leads to food spoilage. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that 42 percent of the fruits and vegetables produced in the Asia-Pacific region spoil before they are consumed. While countries like India are taking action to improve the infrastructure behind food storage and transportation, this is clearly an area that requires our attention as we work to maximize food security for current and future generations.
At a time when nearly 800 million people are suffering from malnourishment, we have to prioritize education and access to modern ag tools to those especially in need in developing parts of our world.
3. Reduced Waste at the Dinner Table
Food waste is the number one source of landfill material today, with about 95 percent of the food we throw away ending up in them. While inadequate infrastructure is often to blame for food waste in underdeveloped nations, consumer waste is the primary culprit in developed areas of the world.
This waste creates a vicious cycle: uneaten food sits in landfills, where it often produces methane gas that contributes to climate change, which in turn makes it more difficult for farmers to grow more food. It’s clearly an area where all of us who live in developed countries can focus to do our part to increase food security.
Advanced plant breeding techniques are also helping solve food loss and waste challenges. I’m proud of the products we’ve developed at Monsanto, like mini bell peppers, which are one-third the size of standard bell peppers yet equally affordable. They not only taste great and help reduce food waste, but also provide a good burst of Vitamin C!
Our food security challenges are daunting, but if we’re able to continue to make strides in each of these three key areas – more efficient farming, better infrastructure and reduced waste – we will position ourselves to better feed our growing global population.
Importantly, we also need to facilitate public discourse, policies and regulations that support the research and adoption of new ag technologies to help address our food security challenges. A huge issue facing us is the divide between those who produce food and the whole population who consumes it. Everyone is talking about food, but very few people have deeper knowledge of where food comes from. That’s an area I’m personally committed to – trying to connect with the 98 percent of the U.S. population not in agriculture. Personally, having a brother who is a rancher in Montana I see the challenges farmers and ranchers face to put food on our table and the value of innovation. As a scientist, I constantly remind myself that science is not enough! We need to explain modern ag’s role in providing farmers with tools that allow them to produce more crops, more sustainably.
John Purcell is Vice President and Global R&D Lead at Monsanto.