December 4, 2015
Guest post by Liam Condon, CEO of Bayer CropScience
First published in Rheinische Post, Nov 28, 2015
We need new ideas to ensure food security and tackle climate change.
While the COP21 Climate Conference convenes in Paris to deliberate solutions to climate change, El Niño is demanding attention south of the equator. This climatic phenomenon is causing heat and drought in some regions of the world, and storms and floods in others. Climate scientists warn that it could have particularly devastating effects this time, notably for agriculture. The affected regions need to worry about threats of crop failures and even famine. El Niño reminds us that feeding the world’s population constitutes one of our greatest challenges, one that cannot be taken for granted.
In 2050, according to UN forecasts, the world’s population will increase from the current 7 billion to 9.7 billion people. Extreme weather conditions due to climate change could become more frequent – even if we reach the desired breakthrough in Paris. To add to the difficulties, biofuel production and rising meat consumption in emerging economies will continue to require greater crop yields. Today up to ten kilos of plant-based crops are needed to produce a kilo of beef.
Experts have concluded that global agricultural production will have to at least double by 2050 to cover demand. At the same time, available arable land throughout the world is limited. Agricultural productivity must therefore increase sustainably and in an environmentally friendly way. Will it be possible to increase production to feed nearly three billion more people (approximately the total population in 1930)? Yes, but only if we put an end to ideological turf battles. The idealised notion that organic farms alone can feed the world is a long way from reality. On the other hand, there are limits to transferring modern agricultural production methods to every country and the effects on traditional cultivation methods must be taken into account to ensure sustainable development.
It is important to understand that these are not “alternatives”: the world does not have to choose between small-scale organic farming and advanced farming using high-tech innovations.
For many people, the topic of genetically engineered crops continues to serve as the indisputable border separating “good” farming from “evil” farming. However, we have yet to see any convincing arguments supporting this idea. All generally accepted scientific studies confirm that genetically modified plants are as safe as their conventionally bred counterparts. With climate change taking place, we should use the entire range of scientific possibilities available to us to develop better solutions.
Rice, for example, is a staple food for more than half of the world’s population. Rice growers in Asia face an enormous problem. Among other causes, climate change has spurred irregular rainy seasons and increasing groundwater levels. Much of their arable land now has a high salt content, which inhibits the growth of rice crops. Particularly in very dry regions, water evaporates quickly, leaving salts and other minerals on the surface of the soil. We are using various methods, including plant biotechnology, to develop salt-tolerant rice plants and ensure a reliable rice harvest for Asian farmers.
Making the most of scientific and technological innovation is crucial to ensure that we can provide enough food for the world’s population in the long term – and adjust sustainably to the consequences of climate change.Kasia Jasik