Agri-Technology for Sustainable Food Production and Nutrition

When it comes to food for feeding its population, the world today is at a critical crossroads.

By Tony A. Rodriguez

We no longer face the prospect of large-scale famine like the one that threatened South Asia in the 1960s—the looming food crisis then that the Green Revolution averted—but though the world is no longer short of food, more than 850 million people still cannot afford to eat adequately and thus remain chronically hungry.

In 2050, there will be 9.6 billion people to feed, most of them needing to eat more and healthier food. It’s said that the quantity of food needed for such a scenario will require producing, for the next four decades, the same quantity that the world’s farmers have produced in the last 8,000 years while facing the new challenges of inadequate land and water resources and negative environmental impacts.

In the words of Jose Graziano da Silva, the director-general of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in his foreword to “The State of Food and Agriculture 2014: Innovation in family farming,” “We need a way forward that is as innovative as the Green Revolution was but that responds to today’s needs and looks to the future: we cannot use the same tool to respond to a different challenge… Hence the quest is now to find farming systems that are truly sustainable and inclusive and that support increased access for the poor so that we can meet the world’s future food needs.”

Da Silva added, “…what family farmers need is broadly similar throughout the world: improved access to technologies that bolster sustainable increases in productivity without unduly raising risks; etc.”

Executives of a leading global agricultural technology company recently hosted forums for stakeholders of Philippine agriculture on the innovations needed for sustainable food production and the role of modern agri-technology in enhancing nutrition for people.

At the Sulo Hotel in Quezon City, Juan Farinati, vice-president of Monsanto Asia-Pacific, led the discussion on how the company is innovating and partnering with different organizations to bring about a broad range of solutions to enable farmers to feed a burgeoning population, manage natural resource availability, climate change, and alleviate poverty in nourishing our growing world sustainably.

He said that Monsanto and its partners and collaborators worldwide are finding ways to innovate to grow more food safely and sustainably, using traditional breeding, biotechnology, crop protection, and precision agriculture to make both the production of crops and conservation of resources possible. He said that agriculture uses 70 percent of the world’s fresh water, and nearly 60% of its hungry people are resource-poor farmers, 20% of whom are landless, relying exclusively on agriculture for their livelihood.

“Global demand for crops is projected to grow dramatically, while the arable land appears to be losing ground to world population growth and economic development,” said Farinati. “Each day, an area equivalent to 42% of the size of Metro Manila, or about 27,000 hectares, is abandoned due to soil loss or degradation. Crops face multiple challenges due to climate change, which causes shifts in planting zones, increase in extreme weather, expansion of insect range, change in weed pressure, increase in crop diseases, and impact on water availability.”

These facts, he said, motivate Monsanto to innovate and partner with various organizations to enable farmers to meet demands sustainably by enabling them with innovative products, agronomic practices, and tools. Farmers can increase food and feeds production to meet rising consumer needs amid stagnant or diminishing natural resources and a changing climate to improve their lives and tap export opportunities given geographic proximity to nations with large populations and growing food needs.

He explained that partnerships and collaborations create better solutions for farmers in terms of improved crops from biotechnology, germplasm improvements, responsible pest management, energy source alternatives, enhanced food security, investments in education and research, product characterization and safety, advances in agronomics, and dedication to sustainability.

Improving Farmers’ Lives

Having grown up in a farming family in Argentina, Farinati recognizes that 415,000 small farmers in the Philippines have delivered national self-sufficiency and made the country a net exporter of corn in 2013, substantially reducing the local poultry and livestock industries’ import dependency. They increased average corn production by 49% in the past 12 years, productivity by 24%, reduced insecticide spraying by 60%, and earned 38% or US$ 378 million in cumulative incremental income, while saving the nation Php60 billion or US$ 1.3 billion in national corn imports from 2010 to 2013 by choosing to plant high-yielding corn seeds with insect protection and weed management traits on 62% of the yellow corn cropping areas.

Smallholder corn farmers choosing biotech-enhanced seeds were have found to have invested improved income in day-to-day expenses (78%), children’s education (60%), building/repairing concrete homes and acquiring appliances (e.g., refrigerator, TV, computer; 46%), and farm capital (23%).

With their 21% production cost savings advantage, Bt corn farmers earn 38% higher incomes than non-Bt growers. They benefited from a Php46.44 million net income from Bt corn farming since the cost of production was reduced by Php0.23 per kilogram.

Farinati also talked about Monsanto’s farmer-focused research and development (R&D) as the world’s number one investor in the R&D of seeds and farm technologies towards enabling farmers to increase yield, protect and preserve natural resources, and improve plant quality and the nutrition of their farm produce to benefit consumers. He shared that the company’s annual farmer-focused investment in R&D is US$ 1.3 billion per year globally, and has invested over US$ 1 million to develop seeds suited to local agro-climatic conditions to enable farmers to increase corn productivity and income in line with the Department of Agriculture’s goals.

Monsanto Philippines CEO Sandro Rissi said, “We are committed to sustaining Filipino farmers’ successes with corn seeds with insect protection and weed management traits and so have invested in a 15,000-metric ton corn seed facility in Bulacan to provide farmers with the world’s most advanced product delivery stewardship system (Refuge-in-a-Bag), offering them convenience and flexibility in insect and weed
management practices. This is the first plant in Asia to offer this technology to farmers, and only the second globally.”

He added that the company has been partnering with Filipino farmers for over four decades, and that over 75 percent of its Philippine workforce is from rural and/or farming backgrounds.

Improving Nutrition with Technology

In coordination with the US-ASEAN Business Council, Monsanto earlier held a forum on “Maximizing Nutrition with Modern Agriculture” at the Dusit Thani Hotel in Makati City. Dr. Milton Stokes—a registered dietician who holds a Ph.D. in Communication Processes & Marketing Communication from the University of Connecticut in the U.S. and a Master of Public Health in Community Health Education who is director of Global Health and Nutrition Outreach for Monsanto—began by citing data on malnutrition, of which there are two types: undernutrition and obesity. Undernourishment is not taking in enough calories for minimum physiological needs while overweight and obesity are defined as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health. A body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more indicates overweight; a BMI equal to or more than 25 indicates obesity.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization or FAO, today there are two billion people who are malnourished, 870 million undernourished, 1.4 billion overweight, and 500 million obese worldwide, said Stokes.

He added that vegetables are among the most nutritious foods available, but taste, texture, and convenience are keys to increasing their consumption.

“Sensory experience, nutrition, and health and convenience are what make people eat vegetables,” he said. “Agricultural innovations present safe and nutritious alternatives to conventional crops for our consumption through traditional breeding, marker-assisted breeding, biotechnology, crop protection, and precision agriculture.”

He cited the development of commercial varieties of vegetables and fruits to make tomatoes, for example, more appealing in color while giving them a sweeter taste by using the traits of wild varieties; in extended-quality watermelons that lose much less juice and are thus less messy when sliced, eaten, and stored after they’re cut; sweet-tasting, crunchier, more convenient mini bell peppers one-third the size of standard bell peppers with better value but at a more affordable price; and sweet-tasting lettuce very low in bitterness and crunchier than traditional Romaine, greener in color and more flavorful than Iceberg, and more nutritious—containing much more folate and vitamin C—than ordinary lettuce.

Benefits of Technology

The forum also highlighted the environmental and economic benefits of agri-biotechnology. Stokes said that crop biotechnology is an extension of traditional plant breeding, that it has been researched for over 30 years, and biotech crops have been grown commercially for 18 years.

“In the 1700s, farmers and scientists crossbred plants for new traits,” said Stokes. “In the 1940s, researchers used mutagenesis to alter the genetic makeup of seeds. Then, in the1990s, the first
biotech crops were introduced to the marketplace.”

“Biotech crops are the most thoroughly tested crops in the history of agriculture,” he continued. “They produce food that is as safe and nutritious as conventional ones. The World Health Organization in the past decade has noted that GM foods currently available in the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”

Other expert scientific findings that he cited were those of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or FDA (May 2013): “Food and food ingredients derived from GE plants must adhere to the same safety requirements … that apply to food and food ingredients derived from traditionally bred plants. The consultation is complete only when FDA’s team of scientists are satisfied with the [GE food] developer’s safety assessment and have no further questions regarding safety or other regulatory issues.”

He also cited the American Medical Association Council on Science and Public Health (June 2012): “Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature.”

Stokes cites massive increased crop production with biotechnology. Between 1996 and 2011, crop biotechnology was responsible for an additional 15.9 million metric tons (MT) of cotton lint, 195 million MT of corn, and 110.2 million MT of soybeans.

“Without biotechnology, it would have taken an additional 123 million hectares to produce the same amount of food produced in 2012, while preventing an estimated 26.7 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions, equivalent to removing 11.8 million cars from the road for a year,” Stokes said. Nutrition-wise, biotechnology is working on the fortification of food crops, such as with vitamin A in rice, bananas, cassava, corn, and pumpkin, and with iron in beans, Irish potatoes, and wheat.

“Biotechnology is used in many common products,” said Stokes. “In the case of enzymes, nearly all cheese is made using rennin produced through biotechnology. In yeast, scientists use biotechnology to create unique yeast strains for use in brewing beer and making bread. And in medicine, most insulin used by diabetics is produced through biotechnology.”

In conclusion, Stokes reiterated his company’s commitment to bring a broad range of solutions to help nourish our growing world by producing seeds for fruits, vegetables, and key crops that help farmers have better, more nutritious harvests while using water and other important resources more efficiently.

“We work to find sustainable solutions for soil health, help farmers use data to improve farming practices and conserve natural resources, and provide crop protection products to minimize damage from pests and disease,” he said. “Through programs and partnerships, we collaborate with farmers, researchers, nonprofit organizations, universities and others to help tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges.”

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s April 2015 issue.

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