Biotech critical for meeting future food demand, experts say
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OXON HILL, Md., Feb. 29, 2016 - A top scientist at USDA, a Monsanto executive and other experts agreed Monday that improving on existing biotechnology and developing new agriculture practices are vital to meeting increased global food demand by mid-century - but they didn't say it'll be easy.
Catherine Woteki, under secretary and chief scientist at USDA's Office of Research, Education and Economics, told attendees at the Energy Department's Innovation Summit near Washington Monday that ag researchers are diligently looking for ways to develop row crops that yield more, with fewer inputs.
That's because by 2050, the world's population is expected to grow to 9.1 billion people, from about 7 billion now; and with it will come a 70 percent increase in demand for food production, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. By 2100, current research suggests that number will jump to 11.5 billion.
To meet those demands, Woteki says producers will have to use less land to grow more food - and that's where more efficient crops come in. Another way to meet that objective, according to David Fischhoff, special projects lead for Monsanto, is to invest in precision and digital agriculture, as well as biotech.
“You'll not be surprised to hear that I think a large part of meeting that (2050) challenge is the discovery and development and implementation of new technologies,” Fischhoff said during the panel discussion. “That's what gives me reason for optimism.”
Daphne Preuss, CEO of Chromatin, a global sorghum seed company, said biotech and innovative thinking can make the difference between very low crop production and a thriving farm.
“The farmers we work with in Africa were often having yields that are one-tenth to one-hundredth of what we see (in the U.S.) with the very same crop,” Preuss said. The difference “is that they don't have access to quality genetics.” With superior genetics and well-prepared seed, Preuss said these subsistence farmers, who hand plant their seed with sticks, are seeing 10 times the yields they were before without the high-quality seed.
Steve Long, a professor of crop sciences and plant biology at the University of Illinois, sounded a note of caution, however. “It's going to take 20 years at least for a new innovation in the lab to actually have any presence in a farmer's field. So we have to prepare for an uncertain future,” he said.
Woteki suggested greater efforts at limiting food waste, both in developing countries - where food can be contaminated or destroyed by rodents, other pests, and disease - and in developed countries, where food is more often thrown out by consumers - would be a feasible interim step to make sure more food that's ready to eat, is eaten. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, 40 percent of food in the U.S. is never eaten, amounting to $165 billion a year in waste. Worldwide, between 30 and 40 percent of food produced - worth about $1 trillion - is never eaten, says the World Resources Institute.
Getting food to where it needs to go can also be difficult because of political or physical barriers, but that needs to change, too, Woteki added. Preuss and Fischhoff suggested ag data and technology sharing might be a good way to either break down those barriers, or to teach subsistence and small-scale farmers in developing countries how best to use their resources and maximize yields.
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