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Embracing Science-Based Technologies
This is the fourth of a series of five papers outlining the policy priorities of the Global Harvest Initiative, a partnership united under the common goal of addressing hunger and food insecurity by sustainably closing the global agricultural productivity gap.
The challenges of feeding over 9 billion people by 2050 in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way cannot be met without the continued innovation and adoption of new technologies. One tool among many, technology and innovation must be applied at all stages of the global agricultural supply chain from start to finish.
Given the dire consequences of global food insecurity, the Global Harvest Initiative believes that we cannot afford to disregard or dismiss existing or new technologies and innovations that are scientifically proven to increase agricultural productivity.
Unfortunately, there are storm clouds gathering over the science-based approach to reviewing and approving new technologies.
To achieve notable increases in agricultural productivity, technology and innovations must be applied to the entire agricultural supply chain. From notable advances in biotechnology that can make more efficient use of water and fertilizers and reduce pesticides, to biofortification, improved crop varieties, advancements in cold storage, and best practices to reduce post-harvest losses and improve irrigation methods, a science-based approach to new and existing technologies must be applied to maximize their potential benefits worldwide. These technologies, along with traditional breeding approaches, are all essential to meeting the demands being placed on agricultural productivity.
In the following paper the Global Harvest Initiative provides an overview of the past results of adopting and applying innovation and science-based technologies, and outlines several recommendations to ensure that these tools are effectively leveraged to help close the global agricultural productivity gap.
Through the 20th Century and the Green Revolution we have seen the potential increases in agricultural productivity achievable by adopting and applying innovative agricultural technologies worldwide. These increases have not only bolstered food security, but have helped minimize the environmental impacts of agriculture. This is critical, because loss of biodiversity and habitat in turn lead to desertification, loss of fresh water sources, and greater food insecurity.
Major innovations in mechanization, the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and plant and animal management and breeding techniques provided the basis for the fivefold increase in US agricultural output over the twentieth century. This increase in output was achieved with less land and labor, and in recent years with less energy and chemical use per unit of output. As a result of the array of innovations in US agriculture and increased efficiency, the food supply is now available at even lower resource costs and in a more sustainable manner.
Countries all over the world benefited from the innovations of the Green Revolution: Mexico and the US became exporters of wheat; India—on the brink of famine in the 1960s—became a leading producer of rice. These successes were a direct result of adopting the technologies of the Green Revolution, without which a severe global food shortage would have certainly occurred.
Elements of the Green Revolution that worked in Asia and Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s will also work in sub-Saharan Africa. Efficiency of crop and livestock production will also need to increase. Plants will need to be developed with traits that enable them to thrive on land that is now marginal for agricultural purposes. The use and allocation of the limited fresh water supply will require new innovations. As the global population becomes more affluent, demand for meat and dairy per capita will increase, and there are great productivity gains that can be made in a science-based approach to evaluating animal productivity technologies. Since 1944 for example, milk production per cow has quadrupled, and today dairy farms produce around 40 percent more milk with 65 percent less cows. The efficiency of pork production has also improved dramatically: from 1960 to 2000 average age to market has been reduced by 21 percent, and from 1960 to 2020, it is estimated that average weight to market will have increased 22 percent.[ Field to Market: the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture defines agricultural sustainability as meeting the needs of the present while improving the ability to feed future generations by focusing on increasing agricultural productivity while decreasing environmental impact, improving human health through access to safe, nutritious food, and improving social and economic well-being of rural communities. Field to Market provides an index for tracking progress in these areas, as well as documenting progress that has been made as US farmers gain access to innovations that result in empirically measurable improvements in sustainable agriculture. For example, the Field to Market index shows that over the last two decades soil-loss efficiency trends have improved by 30 to 70 percent for corn, soybeans, cotton and wheat. Energy use per unit of output is down in corn, soybean and cotton production by nearly 40 to more than 60 percent. Irrigated water use per unit of output has also decreased 20 percent to nearly 50 percent, while carbon dioxide emissions per unit of output have dropped by about a third for corn, soybeans and cotton. A global effort to provide more farmers with the choice of appropriate science-based technologies is a policy area that could result in substantial progress in spanning the agricultural productivity gap. Field to Market: http://bit.ly/13Papq
New Mexico State University: http://bit.ly/i5zsMW
National Chicken Council
National Pork Producers Council
Jeff Simmons, Elanco Animal Health: “Food, Economics and Consumer Choice – Why Agriculture Needs Technology to Help Meet a Growing Demand for Safe, Nutritious, Affordable Food”, 2009.
Dr. Neil Conklin, Farm Foundation, “Agriculture’s Strategic Role in Feeding and Fueling a Growing World”, December 2009.
Dr. William C. Motes, Informa Economics, “Modern Agriculture and its Benefits: Trends, Implications and Outlook”, March 2010.
Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot, PG Economics, Ltd. UK, “GM crops: global socio-economic and environmental impacts 1996-2007”, May 2009.
Dr. Jason Clay, World Wildlife Fund, “Agriculture from 2000 to 2050 – The Business as Usual Scenario”, March 2010.
Field to Market: The Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture
“Why Science Matters to Agriculture,” Presentation by Dr. Catherine Woteki, USDA at the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, January 2011.
Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research
Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST)
World Wildlife Fund – Agriculture Portal
The National Academy of Sciences
ADM Global Institute for the Prevention of Post-Harvest Losses
The Economist, “Brazilian Agriculture: The miracle of the cerrado”, August 26, 2010.
The Economist, “The 9 billion-people question: A special report on feeding the world”, February 26, 2011.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
“Realizing a New Vision for Agriculture: A Roadmap for Stakeholders”, World Economic Forum, 2011.
The Congressional Hunger Center
The World Bank Agriculture and Rural Development Portal
The World Food Prize