Julie Borlaug of the Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture spoke to Liam Condon, Member of the Board of Management of Bayer AG and President of the Crop Science Division, on the major challenges of global food security.
Liam Condon Imagine it is 2050 and we have to feed more than nine billion people. What are we going to do about it? The United Nations says a highly productive and sustainable agricultural sector will be key to overcoming worldwide hunger and poverty. Its Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) calls for a productivity increase of at least 60 percent. But the complexity and diversity of the challenges involved are daunting and we can only succeed if we educate society about the size of the challenges that the world is facing and about the crucial role that modern farming plays in ensuring food security.
Julie Borlaug Indeed. In my opinion, the entire agricultural community should focus on addressing three major challenges: the first is climate change and erratic weather patterns. Droughts and a decline of limited natural resources such as water and soil are of major consequence to agricultural productivity. The second major challenge is the societal resistance to new technologies and innovation. And the third major challenge we are facing is how to engage the next generation to work in the agricultural sector.
Liam Condon Taking action on climate change is a very urgent priority because farmers are on the frontline. The effects are right on their doorstep: Flooding, heatwaves, drought and soil salinization can shatter life on any farm. We are responding on two fronts: First, we work on chemical and biological solutions to help plants toughen up and cope with the effects of climate change. Second, we put a huge emphasis on curbing the environmental impact of both our business, and modern farming in general. This requires a true commitment to the further development and promotion of sustainable best farming practices.
Julie Borlaug This leads straight to my second, very important point: We must have biotechnology and technological innovation across the board to address issues that will stem from climate change. The utilization of drought, heat and saline tolerant crops, informatics, and other innovations will be a necessity. Technology will be part of the integrated solution that creates better farming systems, more nutritious foods and addresses all the issues that come with climate change and sustainability. We must share this message. And while we do this, we must always keep in mind that the general public is far removed from agriculture and lacks any real understanding of the work that goes into producing our food supply.
Liam Condon That is a very interesting fact. While many dramatic stories tell us about the potential health impacts of modern agrochemicals and especially genetic engineering, the known benefits of increased farm productivity are rarely discussed. At the same time, the consequences of insufficient food are all too obvious. The effect of under-nutrition on young children is devastating and enduring. It can impede behavioral and cognitive development, educability and reproductive health, thereby undermining any chance of a fulfilled life. One out of six children in the developing world is hungry. Better access to nutritious food would have enormous impact on their health. Still, many people remain skeptical of modern agriculture due to concerns about the potential impact on biodiversity, which is something we need to take very seriously.
We must encourage the young generation to learn more about sustainable agriculture and food supply while highlighting the vital role of science and innovation.
Julie Borlaug Yes, and I always try to explain that I understand their skepticisms and confusion. It is important to note that when speaking to these critics, we keep in mind the campaigns that have been mounted against our industry and have spread fear and inaccurate information that the public has accepted as fact. In my opinion, the agricultural industry has to improve in explaining to the public why modern agriculture is so important to our future and why the opposition to it cannot be permitted to deprive millions of people of its promise. We must make our messaging more comprehendible to the public and move away from the scientific and agriculture jargon. We also need to take every opportunity to discuss these issues whether in person or via social media in order to get our message out and gain support. Additionally, I like to share stories about farmers I have met, for example in developing countries, that have been able to utilize new hybrid crops, even GM crops, and other forms of technology. These farmers have been able to improve their yields and farming systems as well as incomes. Access to modern agriculture has allowed farmers to build new homes and educate their children, as well as provide health care for their families and, most importantly, a better quality of life. These stories are perfect examples of how technology and modern farming are positively changing the lives of those who need it most.
Liam Condon We also believe in engaging in a constructive, forward-looking dialogue about the challenges and opportunities of farming. So we are committed to help the next generation of young thought leaders learn and develop themselves with initiatives like the 2015 Youth Ag-Summit, agricultural scholarships and hands-on learning programs at our labs and farms. We must encourage the young generation to learn more about sustainable agriculture and food supply while highlighting the vital role of science and innovation. To develop novel ideas and support the global action needed to solve this challenge, visionary thinking, long-term perspectives and creativity are imperatives.
Julie Borlaug Oh yes, definitely. The average age of a farmer in the US and in Africa is well over 50. We must have young people or what my grandfather called his “hunger fighters” willing to work in farming, become the researchers, policy advisors and leaders in the public and private sectors. These “hunger fighters” must embrace technological innovation, creativity and bold ideas, and collaborate across all disciplines, while also effectively engaging smallholder farmers and private and public sectors to come up with sustainable solutions. It is also our responsibility to engage the next generation by providing the opportunities to further their education through financial support, internships and employment. We must allow them to have a voice, a place at the table, and mentor and inspire them to be part of the team that addresses these challenges. Public support is crucial to be able to provide all farmers with access to modern agriculture and it’s our responsibility to inform the public why modern agriculture is so important. I believe that we can all play a role - large or small - in mentoring and supporting the next generation. We must remember this in order to be able to feed nearly ten billion people by 2050.
Access to modern agriculture has allowed farmers to build new homes and educate their children, as well as provide health care for their families and, most importantly, a better quality of life.