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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. Likewise, from 1970 to 2010, the market weight of chickens has risen by more than 80 percent, yet the amount of feed has been reduced by more than 35 percent. 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. The application of technology and innovation has resulted in notable efficiencies which allow farmers to feed more people with less natural resources and animal waste.
Many are unaware of the true potential of using existing and safe technologies to close the productivity gap, technologies that have been proven safe through scientific evidence. To this end, the Global Harvest Initiative urges the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study that estimates the global losses in production resulting today from resistance to adopting new technologies.
The study should include facts on whether approval of new science-based technologies is slowing in developed countries due to non-scientific reasons, including specific case studies from around the world to highlight the enormity of the issue. While the widespread adoption and utilization of existing technologies can play a notable role, new technologies must be developed, approved and widely adopted to achieve significant increases in global agricultural productivity.
Once discovered, new technologies must be approved before they can be used in the field, making rule-based and predictable regulatory systems critical to bring technology forward and foster innovation.
The uses and application of a technology should be governed in a manner that maximizes the benefits and manages the risks at acceptable levels, recognizing that zero-risk does not exist. Societies must carefully examine the application of technology in agriculture to avoid stifling the innovation and investment necessary to develop and promote sustainable agriculture. Well-constructed policies on technology and innovation will protect the public, minimize risk, and encourage progressive actions and investment toward solutions to the problems that threaten the sustainability of agriculture.
Today, it is unfortunate that approval processes are becoming more restrictive and burdensome as court challenges mount based on non-scientific concerns. By applying the inverse, the potential of adopting new science-based technologies could be even greater than the billions of dollars spent on food security initiatives.
Regulatory systems play an extremely important role in increasing the rate of productivity growth in agricultural production, and it is paramount to adequately fund regulatory systems so timely decisions can be made based exclusively on science to the maximum extent possible.
Many experts believe that the world could significantly reduce the productivity gap in an environmentally-friendly way by increasing utilization of technologies already developed, but which have not been approved for use worldwide. One only has to look at the example of the US, where due to farmers utilizing approved science-based technologies over the last 20 years corn yields have increased by 40 percent with a decrease in the use of land, water and other inputs.
But the global productivity gap cannot be closed by greater utilization of existing technologies alone. New technologies must be developed, approved and widely adopted, and a focus must be placed on a science-based approach and making regulatory processes more effective. In order to achieve notable progress on closing the global agricultural productivity gap, it will be critical to ensure that regulatory processes are transparent and base decisions on science alone.
The science-based approach to technologies should be at the forefront of agricultural goals and a major focus of the Obama Administration’s Feed the Future initiative, as well as any new trade negotiations or bilateral talks.
Adequate funding for public and private research is essential to the development of new and innovative technologies. Additionally, the protection of intellectual property rights is paramount to attract new investment.
The application of new science-based technologies and innovations is but one tool available to help meet the growing demand for food and agriculture worldwide. But in light of changing global diets, weather patterns and other factors, as well as the consequences of global food insecurity, we cannot afford to disregard or dismiss any of the tools and resources available today.
Successfully addressing today’s global agricultural challenges, as well as those of the future, requires applying new technologies and innovation at every step of the way, from the beginning to the end of the global agricultural supply chain. To maximize the benefits of new technologies, and ensure that all countries have access to them, a methodical, science-based approach must be utilized.
 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.
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