The world population is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050 with most growth in a small number of countries. In fact, during our MFBF Summer Conference, Montana State University Economist Dr. Gary Brester told us that the world will need 70 percent more food by 2050. During that time almost half of the world’s population growth will be concentrated in nine countries: India, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Ethiopia, the United Republic of Tanzania, the United States, Uganda and Indonesia.
How are we going to feed this exploding population? That was a question posed in 1968 when Dr. Paul Ehrlich stated, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” As we all know none of this transpired, and much of that reason was because of Norm Borlaug who was considered the father of the “Green Revolution.” He was an American scientist, plant pathologist, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1970. Borlaug helped lay the groundwork for agricultural technological advances that alleviated world hunger through new techniques of plant breeding.
It's exciting news that agriculture has been able to increase production through innovation and technology. American farmers today grow about 40 percent more corn, 30 percent more soybeans and 19 percent more wheat than 35 years ago on the same amount of land using 50 percent less water, 40 percent less energy with 60 percent less erosion.
Although technology and innovation drove those increases in production which prevented mass starvation in third-world countries, that technology and innovation is being increasingly stifled by regulation. That was the topic of a recent workshop I attended hosted at Montana State University by the Initiative for Regulation and Applied Economic Analysis. The workshop “Current and Emerging Issues for Regulating Crop Protection Technologies” brought in experts from several universities to speak on the subject.
One of the subjects that came up was the use of genetically modified, or genetically engineered, organisms. This technology, although approved by nearly all scientific organizations, still faces resistance and regulation far exceeding traditional breeding methods. Current regulatory policies violate nearly all principles of scientific study. In fact, GMO products have been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. Some GMO products have been in use since the late 1970s (insulin, rennet for making cheese) with acceptance by the consuming public.
The question for the regulating community is: How do you develop science-based regulations when the science says there is no need for regulation? On GMOs, the bottom line is that public, academic and private businesses have developed hundreds of potentially useful genetically engineered crops, but only a handful have made it to market. Regulatory requirements unrelated to safety are the main obstacle. They limit innovation plus deny environmental and consumer benefits.
Another issue that received much discussion was the litigation over glyphosate (Roundup). Again, this is a product every legitimate scientific organization has proven is safe yet the courts continue to award huge settlements to litigants suing Monsanto. Science is evidently not trusted. We have scientists that are making statements on both sides of the safety issue. Sometimes it is in search of grant dollars or fame. Meanwhile we need to continue to develop other pest management products to use when plants become resistant to glyphosate. According to Dr. Andrew Kniss, Professor of Weed Science at University of Wyoming, new pesticide development and registration is expensive and difficult. Each chemical must go through over 132 separate tests and some products have numerous chemicals. CropLife America reports that only 1 product out of 159,000 tested makes it to market at a cost of approximately $286 million.
If agriculture is going to continue to feed the world in the coming decades, we need to start using science-based programs that assess the risk and manages uncertainty rather than the precautionary principle of trying to assess uncertainty and manage risk. We will need innovation with all sectors of agriculture. But, as we’ve seen in the past, those in agriculture step up and proudly and efficiently manage to provide food for a growing population. Farm Bureau is proud to be looking to the future to ensure there is healthy food on every table now and for generations to come.