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Can farm production keep pace with a growing global population?

THE UNITED Nations projects that, by 2025, the global population will reach about 8 billion. Moreover, 6.7 billion people will be living in less developed regions. The challenge to feed this population will be further compounded by climate change, political unrest and an uncertain global economy. Will farmers be able to feed our ever-expanding world?

“Agriculture is and will continue to be one of the dominant transformative forces in the global environment,” says David Zaks, research assistant with the Nelson Institute's Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE) at the University of Wisconsin.

Current food production methods help sustain our lives, but their extent and intensity have negative environmental consequences, Zaks says. “For example, agricultural land use is responsible for the release of greenhouse gases, biodiversity decline, eutrophication of waterways, emergence of diseases and changes in local and regional climates, all of which detract from human health and security,” he says.

At the same time, agricultural landscapes have the potential to sequester carbon, provide habitat and improve water quality, among other valuable ecosystem services, Zaks states.

“Increasing demand, biofuels and an increasing number of people eating more meat has put a large amount of stress on the agricultural system,” he says. “Many of the pressures the agricultural system has put on the environment are becoming apparent. If we continue on the same path, these impacts will likely only worsen.”

Partnership required

“While there is no silver bullet to increase food production across the board, the seed industry, crop producers, the higher education community and investors will need to work together to spur innovation and deliver new, more efficient and less environmentally harmful products,” Zaks says.

Public-private partnerships will play a critical role in developing agricultural technologies to improve productivity and alleviate global hunger, says William Niebur, vice president, Crop Genetics Research and Development for Pioneer, a DuPont business. Global food challenges cannot be solved by any one company, government, university or research organization, he says. This is because no one entity has the resources or global access needed to address the impact of climate change on crops or improve agricultural productivity.

Designing and implementing effective partnerships is critical to success, Niebur says. Partnerships must be designed to capture each partner's strengths, such as technical capabilities, global reach or local connections. Here are three examples:

DuPont and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) are using a new model for public-private sector collaboration. Called the Scientific Know-how and Exchange Program, its mission is to increase the rate of yield gain and the quality and diversity of hybrid rice.

Research will be conducted in rice-growing areas such as Indonesia, in research facilities in India, and at IRRI and DuPont locations in the Philippines and Asia. Research will focus on developing hybrids with improved resistance to brown planthopper, a key pest in rice.

“Aspects of this work will be shared publicly and will contribute to making better advanced breeding lines and hybrids available to rice breeders and farmers in Asia,” Niebur says. The project will complement the IRRI-led Hybrid Rice Research and Development Consortium.

Monsanto/African Agricultural Tech-nology Foundation (AATF). Kevin Eblen, vice president, Sustainable Agriculture, Monsanto, also points to the AATF, which is leading a public-private partnership to develop drought-tolerant maize varieties for Africa. The Water Efficient Maize for Africa partnership within AATF will address the devastating effects of drought on small-scale farmers and their families.

AATF is working with the nonprofit International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, Monsanto and agricultural research systems in participating countries. New drought-tolerance technologies have been licensed without charge to AATF so they can be developed, tested and eventually distributed to African seed companies through AATF without royalty and made available to small-scale farmers. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation contributed a total of $47 million to this effort.

Gates Foundation/Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation. Another example of a working partnership is the African Biofortified Sorghum Project, part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Grand Challenges in Global Health Program. “This is an example of how technology developed in the private sector would have sat unused without a public-private partnership to put it to use,” Niebur says.

This project's goal is to develop sorghum with increased levels of vitamin A, and more available iron and zinc. Pioneer scientists have developed technology for corn that could also boost the nutritional value of sorghum.

The project includes 11 research institutes or organizations and is led by the Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation. Now in its fourth year, the project is making progress and is overcoming regulatory hurdles.

Rethinking GM regulations

Will government policies regarding genetically modified (GM) crops have to change to allow biotechnological advances into developing countries?

“While there has been reluctance from some governments to allow the use of genetically modified crops, there has also been a limited amount of third-party independent testing to ensure these products are safe for both people and the environment,” Zaks says. “A greater amount of transparency from seed companies might alleviate the concerns.”

“We support a transparent and science-based regulatory system to review and approve biotech advances,” Niebur says. “We sincerely believe these traits and genetic advances are necessary to address the growing world population and the accompanying food needs. We hope that all regulatory bodies throughout the globe recognize this.”

“History has shown that when governments open the door for farmers to choose innovative technologies like advanced seeds, farmers make decisions that have downstream positive benefits for the rest of society,” Eblen says.

Seed and tech trait developers are working to help meet challenges through genetic research and seed development.

“Farmers today are capable of growing more than 400 bu./acre in corn and more than 150 bu./acre in soybeans, even though 2008 national averages were 154 and 40, respectively,” Eblen says. “This shows what is currently possible when all the tools are brought to bear on delivering top-end yield. It's very difficult to predict how far beyond that we can go, but doubling the current average yield will go a long way toward providing the information necessary to ultimately answer that question.

“We see our role as helping farmers to improve productivity on each acre with fewer resources,” Eblen continues. “The best approach is through a combination of plant breeding, biotechnology and improvements in agronomic practices. We also recognize that the innovations of others and adoption of best practices is something the industry will need to embrace to make meeting this challenge a reality.”

“In 2008, Pioneer established a goal to increase yields in both corn and soybeans by 40% over the next 10 years,” Niebur says. “Any solution will be a combination of more effective plant breeding done locally by talented people with novel tools fueled through enlightened public-private partnerships.”

Closing yield gaps

“The ‘yield gap’ is the amount of additional yield that is possible to obtain under optimal conditions,” Zaks says. “Most places in the developed world have small exploitable gaps, while there are large gaps in many developing regions which also have the greatest food security risks. The challenge is to close those gaps and increase production without damaging people and ecosystems. Slow-release fertilizers, drip irrigation and biochar might have a place in helping to close these gaps and reduce the environmental burden of agriculture.

“Novel technologies, such as perennial grains, would provide great environmental benefits, but the research thus far has been insufficient to bring a product to market,” Zaks continues. “So the search for ways to increase production and decrease environmental damage continues.”

“It's not enough for farmers simply to meet the needs of producing more and conserving resources for the rest of us,” Eblen says. “For agriculture to be truly sustainable, farmers must have the economic incentive to benefit when they meet broader societal challenges. The role of seed suppliers is to provide farmers with the tools to do so. U.S. farmers already have helped to double corn yields from a few decades ago, so we believe this is an achievable goal.”

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