Just looking at the pure statistics, the numbers appear daunting. Based upon the best projections, the world’s population will include an additional 2.5 billion people within the next 40 years. Naturally, all these additional individuals will need to eat, which puts pressure on the globe’s growers to double their crop yields and food production by 2050.
Making this population boom even more difficult to manage, food-wise, will be its make up. “This will be an aging and growing population,” said Markus Heldt, president, Crop Protection Division for BASF SE. “Most of these consumers will have higher incomes, which will lead to a changing diet where they eat more meat than today. More meat demand will mean more grain demand.”
To address this topic at length, BASF Corp. gathered many experts for its Agricultural Solutions Summit. Held in Chicago in June, the summit looked at the issue of feeding a growing population while at the same time preserving the planet’s resource and energy consumption. According to Dr. Peter Eckes, president, BASF Plant Science, this means adopting sustainable agricultural practices.
“Sustainable agriculture is a complex and difficult topic, but our definition is pretty simple,” said Eckes. “We are talking about farming solutions that maintain the right balance between economic success, environmental protection and social responsibility. We want to help growers achieve more yields on the same amount of land using less water and less energy. But we also want them to maintain their way of living.”
Naturally, said Paul Rea, vice president, U.S. crop operations for BASF, growers are at the heart of this movement. “Growers today are at a crossroads,” said Rea. “They have a tremendous production challenge ahead of them, but at the same time, they are getting squeezed by regulations and the desire to be more efficient.”
Somewhat surprisingly, consumers don’t represent a barrier to growers achieving this goal. According to a BASF survey of 400 consumers and 116 growers, there is more trust and optimism among consumers than many general media portrayals might suggest.
“Consumers trust growers more than growers probably expect them to,” said Rea. “This is a strong foundation that the agricultural industry can build on in its goal to improve trust and align priorities even further.”
According to the survey results, consumers take an optimistic view of farmland stewardship practices and believe the industry will continue to improve sustainability efforts. Similarly, when asked to gauge their own priorities and views on environmental stewardship, growers also held a positive view.
Other highlights from the survey included the following:
• Both growers and consumers feel farmland stewardship practices are better now than 10 years ago, and will continue to improve during the next 10 years.
• Consumers think growers place more emphasis on environmental impact when they select crop protection products than growers report of their own behavior in decision-making.
• Consumers feel that growers are receiving crop inputs from trustworthy sources.
• Growers place top priority on effectiveness and cost when selecting a crop protection product.
“In the end, it comes down to consumers having trust in growers, both to provide a safe food supply and to have minimal impact on our environment,” said Rea. “We can help strengthen this trust by providing growers with the information and support they need to make sure that consumers are informed with the right information.”
Part of this effort needs to focus on biotech crops and their contribution to sustainable agriculture, said several speakers. Based upon the data, biotech crop use in the U.S. has already added significantly to the nation’s yield number, producing an additional 40.9 million tons to the country’s corn supply during 2008. “Without the use of biotech crops, U.S. growers would have had to plant an additional 11.4 million acres of corn, 8.6 million acres of soybean and 5.4 million acres of cotton to achieve the same yields,” said Eckes. “Also, the equivalent CO2 emissions saved in 2008 through less tillage with biotech crops was like removing 6.9 million cars from the road.”
In the future, biotech crop developments should help sustainable agriculture by addressing one of the industry’s most pressing challenges: Water use. According to the statistics presented at the summit, 70% of the world’s fresh water goes into farming, 38% of the world’s land area has some level of drought exposure and irrigated land accounts for 40% of global food production. “Growers will not be able to use 70% of the world’s water going forward because of population increases in the world’s major cities,” said Robert Thompson, former gardner chair, agricultural policy for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
To this end, the industry is expecting to see the first drought-tolerant biotech crops beginning in 2012. Furthermore, said Eckes, BASF will continue working in the area of seed development.
“We will develop the best traits for the best seed, promote leading technology platforms in gene discovery and product development up to market introduction,” he said.