The stakes have gotten higher in the last two or three years.
Folks concerned about the coming problem of feeding a rapidly growing world population no longer consider 9 billion people by the year 2050 the benchmark.
“Now, it’s 10 billion,” says Shannon Hauf, senior vice president and global head of crop technology, soybeans, for Bayer Crop Science.
Hauf, keynote speaker at the 64th annual Southern Crop Production Association meeting at the Grove Park Inn Resort in Asheville, N.C., said Monday (Nov. 12) that the combination of globalization and consolidation of key ag companies would drive the innovation necessary to feed those 10 billion souls in just more than 30 years.
The challenge includes providing about twice as much food and fiber with fewer resources — less land and less water, and with an ever increasing disconnect between consumers and production agriculture.
Agriculture, Hauf says, must become more efficient as available land for production decreases by 12 million hectares a year. Harvest losses of nearly 20 percent also limit efficiency. “Only 0.16 of a hectare is now available per capita for food production,” she adds.
She says increased efficiency and production will need to occur “while being mindful of good stewardship, not just soil but also water. Agriculture will have more water restrictions.”
Air quality also poses challenges that must be met, Hauf says. “Efficient energy use will be critical, as well.”
Globalization, a factor that has expanded markets, also brings additional ordeals — regulatory hurdles. “The challenging regulatory environment with globalized agriculture is not helpful,” Hauf says. “It is often not science-based.” In fact, she explained in a response to an audience question regarding the European Union’s consistent regulatory overreach, that the EU, instead of following a risk-based regulatory protocol, works with a “hazard-based” process, assuming that if a hazard is possible, a product should not be allowed.
She says new products essential to meeting the 2050 food and fiber demand will face long, expensive regulatory trials. “It takes $136 million to develop a new GM crop trait,” she says. “Then, it must be approved by 30 or 40 countries in which the crop is not produced.
“The invention is the easiest part of putting a new product in the market,” she says. That initial effort may be six years, identifying a product and getting it ready for end users. But another six or seven years will elapse as the product goes through the regulatory process.
“Pharmaceuticals take less time,” Hauf says. She also notes that the X-Box 360 went from product development to market in 2.9 years. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner made it to market in 8.5 years, compared to 13 to get an agricultural product registered.
“The process is complex,” she says, “and the goalposts keep moving. It’s hard to know where we are, and it’s an industry challenge, not just for Bayer.”
She says the global regulatory system struggles with a capacity issue, not enough resources to evaluate the data in a timely manner. “Regulations also are subject to public, political and socio-economic factors.”
Adding to the complexity, Hauf says, companies no longer release a new product with just one trait. New GMO varieties are stacked with multiple traits. “We have a new lygus product coming with six traits,” she says.
Streamline Regulatory Process
Streamlining the process would put needed products into farmers’ hands sooner. Hauf says Brazil gets new products to farmers faster because they do not require in-country testing. “We encourage countries to use the data on hand,” she says. The trials would be the same.
She says countries to which these products are imported also pose obstacles, “with the exception of Korea, which is always predictable and is the first application we make.”
She says 10 years ago, approval from China was one year. It’s now seven. Cotton has an advantage, however, because lint is not regulated. “But China is showing interest in cottonseed,” which could change the regulatory process.
Hauf says meeting food and fiber demands requires advanced technology. Gene editing offers promise and has been cleared by the USDA for less restrictive regulation. The EU has not granted that exemption, although other countries have weighed in and consider gene editing the same as traditional breeding methods.
Hauf says the industry also must promote the benefits of genetically engineered technology. “With Bt cotton, we reduced insecticide applications,” she said. “But we forgot to promote that benefit. We also must promote reasonable regulation and promote enabling industry to push back on non-scientific information.
“We need to engage the consumer,” she said, as actively and as effectively as companies have worked with farmers to explain the benefits of new products.
“And we need to solve the problem of how to get better seed to farmers in developing countries where they need them to produce food.”
Hauf said the consolidations that occurred in the 1990s, as seed breeding and biotech companies merged, improved crop protection, crop production and farm profitability, while reducing crop inputs, food production costs and carbon dioxide emissions.
Those mergers also reduced land use and lowered food prices for consumers.
“Now, consolidations will drive innovations that will produce food and fiber for 10 billion people. But we need to increase research and development spending.”
She showed a chart comparing research and development investments of several key industries, including automotive, data science and pharmaceuticals, with agriculture. The disparity was something like 16 to 1.5.
Hauf says digital technology “will change the way you farm.” Farmers (across the globe) can use a smart phone to access information. Farmers are using data to make better decisions.
She says gene editing technology offers significant advantages for improving food and fiber production. Gene editing may enable beneficial characteristics in a plant — drought tolerance, for instance. It may deactivate unfavorable characteristics, such as disease susceptibility. Gene editing also offers the potential to combine the most desirable characteristics. Enhanced nutrition, Hauf says, is one possible advantage of gene editing technology.
Other benefits include the potential to provide “tailored solutions to address farmers’ needs. They make 40 critical decisions every season,” Hauf says. “They want the best seed, the best pest, disease and weed protection, and they need to balance social and environmental concerns.”
She says the industry missed a step when introducing genetically modified products. “We could have done a better job and spent more time with consumers, the way we do with farmers. We must advocate for modern agriculture. We have to engage consumers.”
She says globalization plus consolidation will equal innovation in agriculture, and that innovation will be essential to meet the demands of 10 billion people.