Guest blog post by Liam Condon, Member of theManagement Board of Bayer AG and Head of the Crop Science Division.
Our food system needs a paradigm shift. For years it was designed almost exclusively to produce more food to feed a growing world population. But that alone isn’t enough anymore.
By the year 2050, there will probably be nearly ten billion people on our planet – about 2.2 billion more than today. Experts estimate that our global agricultural production will need to double at the very least in order to cover the population’s requirements in terms of food, animal feed and bioenergy.
However, today’s food production is not sustainable; it uses natural resources wastefully. And other problems attributable to climate change threaten us over the next 30 years, too: One-third of our fertile land around the world could be lost, for instance to erosion or salinization.
Our food system also wastes too much food: Estimates suggest that one-third of all food – about 1.3 billion tons every year – is lost during transport or in our households.
And our current system is unjust: 800 million people worldwide go hungry and nearly two billion people suffer from some form of vitamin or mineral deficiency. At the same time, two billion people are overweight or obese.
There is no obvious patent remedy for all these problems; our global food system is too complex and multifaceted for that. However, agriculture can help improve the situation significantly if, for example, we bear the following five points in mind.
First, we need to talk to each other more and listen to each other, instead of talking at each other. It’s time for an end to the polarizing debates that dominate the future of agriculture, with “industrialized farming” on one side and “organic farming” on the other! If we can succeed in building bridges across our ideological divides, we can learn from each other.
At Bayer we are working on intensifying our dialog with all parts of society, including our critics, but sincere and fruitful dialog requires trust, and trust requires transparency. This is why we have taken the safety studies for our crop protection products that are relevant for the approval of these products by the authorities and made them publicly accessible on a website, among other things. With this step, we want to set an example for transparency in the agricultural industry.
Second, we have to get away from our one-sided fixation on crop yields. Increases in crop yields dominate many discussions about the future of farming, and sometimes they block our view of new approaches and creative solutions.
Of course agriculture must become more productive. But we shouldn’t talk just about quantity, we should talk about quality, too – because sometimes, less is more, both in production and consumption. That also means we have to question our own food habits. Ultimately, our goal should be the production of sufficiently high-quality, healthy, nutritious food for everyone – in a sustainable way that minimizes our use of resources.
Third, we need to challenge the status quo. Tomorrow’s farming needs innovation. Fortunately, there are promising technological developments that give us all reason to hope, such as new plant breeding technologies. They can enable the creation of higher-yielding, more robust plants or plants that taste better and don’t trigger food allergies – and all of that much faster than before.
Another example is digitalization, which will revolutionize farming. Precise data on the condition of a field makes it possible to deploy crop protection products only where they are really needed, and to do so early, before pests, weeds or plant diseases spread. As a consequence, plant protection is more efficient and precise, and thus environmentally friendlier.
Fourth, in the future we need to think more holistically about innovation. We need to consider all the factors carefully and not just focus on the benefits or risks. There are good reasons why Europe espouses the principle of innovation as well as the principle of precaution – because if you only apply one, you come up short. A reasoned consideration of the advantages and disadvantages of every new technology enables people to achieve a broad consensus, and that is critical, because innovations need society’s support to make a contribution to solving urgent problems.
Fifth, there are around 500 million smallholder farmers in the world, and they play a key role in the nutrition of the future and a sustainable food system. Individually, their fields are usually smaller than a soccer field, but together they produce nearly half the world’s food – and 80 percent of the food in developing countries. If we succeed in increasing these farmers’ productivity sustainably, their income will rise, too. They will be able to send their children to school, invest more, and produce more high-quality food for themselves and ultimately society as a whole. Everyone would benefit from that.
Here as well, Bayer is taking on responsibility and supporting smallholders all over the world with numerous initiatives. For example, for seven years now, smallholders in India, Kenya and Latin America have benefited from training we organize that focuses on topics such as soil health, water management and plant protection.
Moreover, we’re helping lots of smallholder farmers become more productive and meet the quality demands of food retailing. One example is the “Bridging the Seed Gap” project, in which Bayer works with the nonprofit organization Fair Planet in Ethiopia. We support farmers in gaining access to high-quality vegetable seed and planting it with small changes to their traditional farming methods, with the prospect of better harvests and higher yields.
Yes, our food system needs to become more sustainable. I am firmly convinced that we can do this, but only together – and only if we’re open to change and ready to reconsider our attitudes on food and farming.