Feeding the Developing World: The Search for Solutions

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Dire predictions half a century ago of a world unable to feed a population explosion did not come to pass, largely due to the “Green Revolution” that used innovative techniques to dramatically increase crop yields. But will there be a second Green Revolution, one that is more sustainable, to feed the next leg of population growth, mainly coming from developing nations?

A recent study by the DuPont Advisory Committee on Agricultural Innovation and Productivity for the 21st Century said that the current trajectory of population growth vis-à-vis consumption of food is not sustainable. The report is projecting a 23% increase in the global population to more than 9 billion by 2050, with nearly all the growth coming from the developing world where agricultural productivity is relatively low, such as sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. “Global food production must be 70% greater than today’s level to close the deficit between supply and demand,” the study said. This is a “productivity gap” that must be closed “without using substantially more land.”

The first Green Revolution used hybrid seeds, modern crop management and chemical fertilizers and pesticides to save millions of lives. But the World Resources Institute said it came at a cost: Agriculture has become the “dominant driver” of tropical deforestation, accounts for 70% of all freshwater withdrawals from rivers, lakes and aquifers and emits much of world’s greenhouse gases (24% in 2010). “The world needs to reduce agriculture’s impact on the environment,” says Gary Gardner, a senior fellow at the institute.

But there is cause for guarded optimism. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization cited opportunities to engender “agro-ecologically attained” yields. “All in all, the potential to raise crop yields to feed a growing world population seems to be considerable,” the group said.

Reducing Pesticide, Fertilizer Use

One method that is more environmentally friendly is to treat seeds with herbicides and pesticides rather than waiting for them to grow into mature plants. The plants that come from treated seeds already incorporate these chemicals, making large-scale broadcasting of the compounds unnecessary. And since the chemicals are embedded in the plant itself, not the surrounding soil, there is virtually no risk of runoff polluting nearby rivers and streams. It is not a perfect solution, because some pests on maturing plants will not be affected by seed treatments and can decimate crops. But “seed treatment is one of the fastest-growing parts of agriculture,” says Duncan Aust, global innovation director of FMC Corporation’s Agricultural Solutions.

“Global food production must be 70% greater than today’s level to close the deficit between supply and demand.”

Integrated Pest Management is a science-based approach that takes into account the large body of literature on the lifecycles of individual insects. Here, farmers can accurately identify the pests that have attacked their crops, set threshold infestation levels for taking action with pesticides, use rotation and other prevention methods, then use carefully targeted spraying of approved, low-impact chemicals.

Another, holistic, approach is precision farming — combining the use of satellites, smart sensors and sophisticated IT systems to limit the application of agricultural chemicals, water and other resources to just those areas where they are needed. Launched in the 1980s, the practice is now so prevalent that the European Agricultural Machinery Association estimates that 70% to 80% of new farm equipment sold today includes precision farming components.

Satellites provide location-specific information about terrain, vegetation, water and weather. Sensors precisely monitor soil moisture in farm fields and eventually collect data on both nutrient content and soil temperature. Computer programs ingest data from all these sources and instruct farmers, and often farm equipment, about exactly where and when to place which resources, and exactly how much of each is needed. “Anything in excess of what’s needed, doesn’t help the yield,” said Ratnesh Kumar, who works with these sensors along with his research team at Iowa State University. “Those resources just drain into the environment.”

“Biologicals,” or products derived from living organisms, offer yet another fast-growing approach to sustainably increasing agricultural productivity. There are three categories of biologicals: bio-pesticides (including bio-herbicides, bio-insecticides and bio-fungicides), bio-stimulants, and bio-fertilizers. FMC’s Aust said that the company is developing microbial bio-stimulants that can be applied to crops grown in arid regions to dramatically improve their resistance to drought without genetic engineering of the plants. “You could see 5% to 100% yield increases, and also enhance drought tolerance,” he says. And crops grown with biologicals generally qualify as organically grown, according to trade publication Agra Europe.

As in the past, hybridization holds a great deal of promise. Aust says scientists are now developing higher-yielding, more nutritious crop strains that are resistant to pests and disease and able to tolerate drought, extreme heat or both — all conditions that climate change is making increasingly common. New approaches to hybridization allow this work to proceed much faster than it did during the first Green Revolution. For example, the marker-assisted breeding program at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Missouri uses DNA sequencing to radically accelerate the otherwise time-intensive and laborious process of breeding new plant varieties.

More common and better known to the general public is genetic engineering, a technique that involves physically manipulating the genome of plants, which is practiced by Monsanto and others. In addition to enabling the creation of hybrids that can thrive in specific environments, genetic engineering has allowed companies to create crops that are resistant to pesticides and herbicides, making the targeted use of these chemicals far more effective, says Aust.

To be sure, genetic engineering has critics, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, which favors “crop breeding (often assisted by molecular biology techniques) and agroecological practices such as crop rotation, cover crops, and integrated crop and livestock management,” as well as increasing yields by widening access to water and fertilizer. But John Kasper, FMC’s commercial director for North America, says that opposition to genetically modified crops can be counter-productive because such strains will be needed by developing countries as their climates change in the near future.

“There are some 500 million smallholder farms across the globe, many of which are marginally productive.”

Genetic engineering is also being used to boost photosynthesis. According to a 2015 study in Cell magazine, “photosynthesis, which has been improved little in crops and falls far short of its biological limit, emerges as the key remaining route to increase the genetic yield potential of our major crops. Thus, there is a timely need to accelerate our understanding of the photosynthetic process in crops to allow informed and guided improvements via in-silico-assisted genetic engineering,” referring to the use of computer modeling or simulations. Furthermore, Kevin Bonham, a curriculum fellow in the microbiology and Immunobiology department at Harvard Medical School, wrote in Scientific American that “increasing yield through photosynthesis would allows us to grow more food on less land,” and thus feed a growing global population.

Innovation and Productivity

Producing meat is extremely resource-intensive and the demand for meat is growing rapidly in parts of the developing world, most significantly in China. But what if we could produce meat without having to raise animals? Andras Forgacs, bio-printing entrepreneur, has started a company to 3D print in vitro meat. “This is biofabrication, where cells themselves can be used to grow biological products like tissues and organs,” he said during a 2013 TED Talks appearance. He pointed out that such techniques have already been used in medicine to grow such body parts as ears, blood vessels and bone. “Beyond medicine, bio-fabrication can be a humane, sustainable and scalable new industry,” he said During his talk, Forgacs displayed some cultured leather, which he said is the first step toward producing meat and other animal products in the laboratory.

Added FMC’s Aust: “Biofabrication would involve a lot less resource inputs, produce less carbon dioxide, and require fewer applications of herbicide.” Research is key to developing innovative solutions such as biofabrication, precision farming and biologicals. “As we continue to invest in agricultural research and technology we will have continued innovation, and that will enable increased output, including in the developing world,” says FMC’s Kasper.

But persuading governments to fund agricultural research remains a challenge. “Over time, private investments in agricultural innovation have steadily increased, while public investments have stagnated or declined, according to the 2013 report, “Feeding the Planet in a Warming World,” jointly published by the London School of Economics and Political Science and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. “Governments, transnational institutions and nonprofits need to reverse this trend.” It urged the U.S. Congress to triple its investment in agricultural research and development from $5 billion to $15 billion per year. The researchers also called for reductions in regulations “applied to crops improved through biotechnology.”

Much of this research will foster the growth of big agriculture, which FMC’s Kasper sees as essential. The consolidation of farms into larger business units increases productivity, he says, “and like it or not, the movement to bigger and more efficient units is essential, especially as more people leave farms for the city.” Indeed, the urbanization trend is accelerating. In 1900, 13% of the world’s population lived in cities. By 1950, it was 29%, and by 2030 it is projected to reach 60% — or nearly 5 billion people. According to “Food Security: Feeding the World in 2050,” a 2010 Royal Society Publishing report, “it is likely that the proportion of the global population not producing food will continue to grow, as will the number of middle- and upper-income consumers whose dietary choices are more energy- and greenhouse gas emission-intensive.”

Room for Small-scale Growers

Small-subsistence farmers also need to be part of the second Green Revolution: “If you care about the poorest, you care about agriculture,” said Bill Gates in his role as co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Investments in agriculture are the best weapons against hunger and poverty, and they have made life better for billions of people. The international agriculture community needs to be more innovative, coordinated, and focused to help poor farmers grow more. If we can do that, we can dramatically reduce suffering and build self-sufficiency.”

Gates added that “when Melinda and I started our foundation more than a decade ago, we initially focused on inequities in global health. But as we spent more time learning about the diseases of poverty, we realized that many of the poorest people in the world were small farmers. The conclusion was obvious. They could lift their families up by growing more food.”

There are some 500 million smallholder farms across the globe, many of which are marginally productive. Their output — and thus the world’s food supply — would increase dramatically if they joined the second Green Revolution. The first Green Revolution nearly doubled real per capita income in Asia between 1970 and 1995, and regional poverty dropped from 60% to less than 33%. Expecting similarly dramatic results this time around might be somewhat optimistic, but the promise remains great.

To accomplish substantial gains, the developing world’s smallholder farmers need access to tools such as “modern irrigation practices, crop management products, fertilizers, post-harvest loss solutions, improved seeds, mobile technology, as well as access to information and extension services,” the DuPont committee concluded. Add to this solutions to large-scale spoilage, which results from both lack of refrigeration and poor transportation networks.

“To keep moving in the right direction, both the public and private sectors will have to ramp up their investment in research and other projects that spur innovation and efficiency.”

The fact that smallholders generally lack such access through international aid is why Gates has called for UN food agencies to better coordinate their assistance efforts. He urged the FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Food Programme to “create a global productivity target for small farmers — and a system of public scorecards to measure how countries, food agencies, and donors are contributing toward the overall goal of reducing poverty.”

Gordon Conway, professor of international development at Imperial College London, director of Agriculture for Impact, and former president of the Rockefeller Foundation, told an audience at the World Bank that small farmers also need to be able to sell what they grow, and national networks of markets and village-level “agrodealers” can better connect growers with the markets that need their crops while also improving the farmers’ access to supplies and information. In addition, local producer associations, some encouraged by governments, can help farmers get fair prices for their output.

As with high-tech innovation, such progress requires investments. The FAO said investments in primary agriculture “should become a top priority” and increase by 60%, not only to produce enough food for a growing world population but also to generate income to get people out of poverty and support rural livelihoods.

In 2012, the World Bank Group increased its agriculture investments to $9 billion, more than 90% of which was earmarked for “improving farm-level productivity and market access, especially for smallholder farmers.” Both the public and private sectors have been joining these efforts. “Partners in Food Solutions” unites Cargill, General Mills and Royal DSM in an effort supported by U.S. Aid for International Development (USAID) to improve the food value chain in Africa. Its tools, which include web-based and onsite training, are aimed at improving crop quality and shelf life, educating farmers about business plans and financial strategies, and gaining cost savings through lower-cost raw materials and packaging.

Other corporations have also gotten involved in this work through their charitable arms. The Wal-Mart Foundation, for instance, recently invested $1 million in a program with USAID in Rwanda. The Ejo Heza (A Brighter Future) campaign champions adult literacy and nutrition education, expanding agricultural production and access to financial resources. The Nestlé Cocoa Plan, announced in 2013, is financing farmer field schools aimed at improving farming practices and yields. Some 45,800 farmers were trained in 2014, and Nestlé said it is on track to offer 12 million higher-yielding cocoa plants to farmers by 2019. The Gates Foundation, too, is contributing. In a recent $200 million funding round, it provided $21 million to develop drought-, disease- and insect-resistant legume strains for India, Bangladesh and 13 countries in Africa. Many of its grants focused on sub-Saharan Africa, including $33 million for drought-tolerant maize that could improve yields for seven million African farm families.

Measured Progress

Food security is slowly improving overall in sub-Saharan Africa and in other developing parts of the world. According to The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2015 Global Food Security Index, sponsored by DuPont, two thirds of the 109 countries studied made progress from a year earlier. The average score on the index rose 1.2 points. “Driving the gains were sustained economic expansion in most regions and rapid growth in developing countries (especially in sub-Saharan Africa) combined with lower global food prices,” the report noted. Of the 28 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, 82% saw food security increases between 2014 and 2015, and the region as a whole increased 1.5 points. The most improved countries expanded their ability to store crops, lowered their post-harvest, pre-consumer food loss, and increased diet diversity.

Since 2011, “the world has made some progress toward eradicating extreme hunger and poverty. During this time, developing countries have managed to reach the point of nearly halving the proportion of those suffering from hunger,” added a 2014 report from the DuPont Advisory Committee.

To keep moving in the right direction, both the public and private sectors will have to ramp up their investment in research and other projects that spur innovation and efficiency, both for big agriculture and for the small farmers of the world. If that happens, the prospects for feeding a world population of 9 billion would be much improved.

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