Panelists discussing global food security challenges at the North Carolina Agriculture and Biotechnology Summit at North Carolina State University in Raleigh Nov. 18 all agreed that modern technology such as genetically modified organisms is a must for feeding a growing world population.
Panelist Steve Shafer, associate administrator for national programs with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, credits modern technology for effectively doubling yields in China during the latter half of the 20th century. He said this illustrates the value of modern technology in increasing food production.
To address food security challenges, Shafer said more land must be put into agricultural production and farmers must engage in sustainable intensification which means getting more production per acre. Reducing food waste and using fewer animals is also critical, he stressed.
Through it all, investing in new technology is a must, Shafer said.
“We have a lot of tools left in the toolbox. Intelligent use of those tools will get us there. I think the food and technology dilemma is one that society can address in the coming years,” Shafer said.
The focus of the summit was to find ways to feed a rapidly growing world population that is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Michiel van Lookeren Campagne, head of biotechnology for Syngenta Biotechnology, said agriculture must “throw all of the technology that we can” at the food security challenges the growing population brings.
“We need d to transcend from the defensive position we’ve had as an industry and as scientists and talk more about the benefits we deliver,” van Lookeren Campagne said.
“For example, we want to make more food with less waste so we have committed to increase the average productivity on these farms by 20 percent by using less inputs from land, water and other inputs,” he explained. “We’re working on more diversity and less biodegradation. We have committed to improve the fertility of 10 million hectares of farmland.”
Ron Stotish, chief executive officer of AquaBounty Technologies, said the challenge is that the debate about genetically modified organisms is being framed so that there are two polar extremes.
“There is the technology community that has been able to contribute enormously to the quality of life in new technologies and new methods and there is also serious concern on the other end of the spectrum that this technology may have inherent risks or other threats that aren’t known,” Stotish explained.
Stotish said much progress has been made since the 1980s when scientists developed the ability to transfer genes and develop new genotypes and phenotypes. “Yet we continue to have the debate about whether genetic modification is something we should be engaging in as part of our attempt to address the global food security issues,” he said.
“It is a dilemma. The dilemma is mostly for people who are caught in the middle, the 80 percent of Americans who here on one side that this is a dangerous technology that will cause cancer or cause birth defects or cause autism and the other end, the scientific community, that has said look at all the wonderful things we can do for you,” Stotish said.
Agriculture must think holistically and use all tools available to address food security challenges, he stressed.
“I think if we don’t use that technology we are wasting a valuable resource, a God-given resource that we should be using,” he said. “The science community has been firmly behind us, and we’ve been fighting a battle because the regulatory process has been politicized by the very dilemma that we are discussing here today.”
Stotish said he is optimistic the challenges will be met. “Our hope is that we prevail because I think this technology can do wonders to improve the quality of humanity for generations to come.”