Achieving Food Security in the 21st Century

THE CHALLENGE

Feeding a growing population...
According to the latest estimates, world population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 and may well burst through the 10 billion mark by the end of the century. At the same time, people in developing nations and emerging economies will be demanding the kind of nutritious, protein-rich diet we in the advanced industrial nations take for granted.

Doubling agricultural production...
Experts agree that to meet this exploding demand we will have to double agricultural production. That means growing twice as much corn, twice as much soy, twice as much rice, wheat and other grains - twice as much of just about everything the world's farmers produce today.

The resource squeeze...
But most of the world's best farmland is already under cultivation, and much of that is being lost to erosion, degradation, and urban and suburban sprawl. And we will have no more water to grow crops in 2050 than we do today. Very likely we will have less, as the underground aquifers used for irrigation are being depleted, and much of the rest of the world's fresh water is being diverted to thirsty cities or is becoming increasingly polluted.

The humanitarian toll...
With the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization food price index hitting an all-time high in December 2010, the food challenge is becoming a humanitarian crisis. In 2009, the world slipped even further away from the UN's millennium goals, with the number of chronically hungry and malnourished growing to more than one billion, according to the FAO. Worst of all, every year about six million children die from hunger-related illness before their fifth birthday. With rising populations in the poorest parts of the world, these numbers - as bad as they are - have the potential to get worse.

The environmental challenge...
How do we feed a growing population and provide improved nutrition to the world's poor without cutting down our remaining forests, decimating increasingly endangered animal species, and further depleting the world's already stressed supplies of fresh water?

THE SOLUTION

We've done it before...
A recent study by Stanford University scientists found that agricultural advances between 1961 and 2005 spared as much as 6.8 million square miles from cultivation. This is an area approximately equal to all the cultivated land in use today, or a total of almost three Amazon rain forests.

The wonders of technology...
The extraordinary yield gains and environmental savings enabled by modern crop protection and biotech have been dramatically demonstrated in the United States. One example is corn, which in the twenty years between 1987 and 2007 posted a 41 percent increase in yield per acre, while soil loss decreased 69%, irrigation water use declined 27%, overall energy consumption fell 37%, and 30% less CO2 was released into the atmosphere (all numbers per bushel).

Similar gains were found for other major crops. These numbers are all the more impressive when it is considered that the U.S., already the most advanced agricultural nation in the world, was starting from a very high baseline.

Even greater gains can be found in the developing and emerging nations...
Agricultural technologies are already making a big difference in the developing world. Brazil, for example, has already doubled soybean production in the past 10 years. In Russia and Ukraine, the winter wheat yield increased 75 percent in one program following the adoption of modern crop protection technology. It is estimated that Asia could dramatically boost agricultural productivity simply by adopting existing technology.

And there is a huge potential for new and future technologies...
Some of the most exciting tools for enhanced agricultural productivity have only recently been brought to market, or can be found in the R&D pipelines of the major research-based seed companies. Consider for example new seed treatments that are able to stimulate root growth in plants, raising yields and making them better able to withstand stresses such as drought. Other new plant technologies dramatically cut the need for irrigation. One technology, applied to wheat, can increase crop-per-drop efficiencies as much as 35 percent.

WE CAN DO IT

We have the technology and know-how to feed a growing population in a sustainable way that improves our Earth's environment, protects endangered species, and helps pull the world's poor out of underdevelopment. But we have to keep the engines of innovation firing, finding new technologies and ever more ingenious solutions. That means we need a regulatory system based on science, not on fear, and a realistic appreciation of the resource scarcities that confront us. Only then will we able to meet the great challenge of the 21st century, growing more from less and providing true food security to the world's 10 billion people.

 

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