The November issue of British publication Innovations in Food Technology features an opinion piece by David Green, Executive Director of the U.S. Sustainability Alliance. He highlights the urgent need for safe and trusted innovations to help feed a growing population sustainably – and, crucially, the license for farmers across the world to be able to use them. Read David’s article in full, below.
By David Green, Executive Director, The U.S. Sustainability Alliance
We are 30 harvests away from having to feed nearly 10 billion people. By 2050, the amount of additional farmable land needed to produce enough food for the world’s growing population will be twice the size of India. And that is accounting for crops and livestock to continue the current improvements in genetics and technologies. Add to that the pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), cope with climate change, manage water resources and farm sustainably, and the demand for the adoption of safe and trusted innovation in food supply is more urgent than ever.
It is fair to say that in developed economies, food is probably safer and more nutritious than at any time in history. Yet, it is also fair to say that many consumers are concerned about their food. Is it safe? How is it made? What has been done to it? And, crucially, are new technologies such as genetic modification or genome editing safe?
The challenge for new technologies is not only to ensure that food security is safe and properly regulated, but also to ensure that consumers are not left behind in understanding why safe and innovative technologies are critical in sustaining our planet. Adoption of new technology can be disruptive and risk falling victim in ways that perhaps none of us could have imagined. Departures from the ‘old way’ of doing things to adopting ‘new ways’ can trigger societal wariness and even rejection, with old ways often being deemed to be best.
Frightened of New Ideas
The American philosopher John Cage put it succinctly: “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.” Cage was not referring to food technologies, but he might as well have been. Over the past twenty years the questioning, and at times rejection, of innovation in primary food production has taken on a life of its own.
For sure, the food scares in many European countries in the late 1990s had consumers worried. In several cases, these crises, such as BSE (mad cow disease), E.coli in beef, tainted olive oil and listeria in cheese led to human deaths. Not surprisingly, consumers began to cast a cold eye on what was being used to bring them their food.
For example, during this period GMO crops were first imported from the Americas and were promptly labeled Frankenfoods by professional activists seeking a cause and the media seeking headlines, and feared by consumers. Tacked on to genuine fears about food scares, the GMO issue was exacerbated by misinformation and scare-mongering despite full EU safety and regulatory clearances as to safety for humans, animals and the environment. GMO crops were lumped into the same ‘shopping basket’ as the above-mentioned food scares.
For consumers, it is far from easy to sort out what and who to believe when it comes to food production. We in the food industry need to be ever mindful of the voices of those far removed from farming and the production of food and who perhaps get their information from social media or NGOs without having the benefit of knowing the context or appreciating stringent regulatory safety checks and clearances.
We live in an age when science provides us with tools to evaluate and manage risk. As such, it is imperative that we weigh the risks and costs of adopting new technologies – food safety comes first – against the risk and costs of not adopting a new technology.
Meeting the 2050 Goal
As primary food producers, farmers the world over need to be able to choose the best tools and technologies to help meet that 2050 goal. American farmers have long been front-runners in the take-up of farming innovations with impressive results.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that agricultural output nearly tripled between 1948 and 2015 – even as the amount of farm labor and land declined by about 75 percent and 24 percent, respectively. In 1970, one American farmer could on average produce food to feed 72 people. Today, that one farmer can feed 155 people – primarily through adopting safe technologies.
Thanks to increasing use of precision agriculture – tools such as sensors, GPS, drones and auto steer systems and more – farmers can manage the inputs for their crops more accurately (and more sustainably) than ever before. Using the data gathered, they can vary and adapt their seeding and application rates to ensure that they are applying just the right amount of seed, fertilizer and crop protection products to each area of their fields. This is resource efficiency at its best.
In many cases these technologies are scale-neutral so that smaller farms and farmers in developing countries also benefit. In 2018, the African Union published a report, Drones on the Horizon, and concluded: “ With the current status of drone technology uptake and the opportunities it offers in crop scouting and monitoring, crop volume assessments, inventory, precision spraying, and crop damage assessment, Africa is set to increase its agricultural productivity in the next decade”.
Improving Farming Operations
For millennia, farmers everywhere have always looked to new and safe ways to improve their farming operations, raise better crops and livestock, improve soil quality and make better and sustainable use of natural resources. Yet today, the uptake of food innovations is at risk due to unprecedented attacks on science and technology that threaten to slow and even halt the adoption of new safe practices that could help to solve many of the issues facing our world’s food security.
Of equal concern is the increasing failure of many politicians and regulators across the world to support science-based decisions when considering new technologies. In the EU, we have witnessed legislation changing from risk-based to hazard-based assessments and the spread of the EU’s unscientific ‘precautionary principle’ which in effect pits the counter arguments of ‘prove that it’s NOT safe’ against ‘prove that it IS safe’.
As we count down to the next 30 harvests, there is an increasing need to recognize and accept another critical phase in the evolution of food and agriculture – perhaps best described as a sustainable revolution. We must embrace the pressing need for safe and proven innovation and new technologies. Meeting the challenges of providing enough safe and nutritious food for a growing world will need collaboration and communication by scientists, regulators, farmers and all those in the food industry and not least consumers if we are to care about those who will want to eat in 2050.