By Chris Policinski, President and CEO, Land O’Lakes, Inc.
This post is part of a series produced by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, marking the occasion of its fifth Global Food Security Symposium 2014 in Washington, D.C., which will be held on May 22.
Discussions this week about the impact weather volatility and climate change have on global food production provide additional, powerful evidence of the fragile state of our world’s food security. Climate change is yet another component of the mounting challenges that we face in feeding a soaring global population, while natural resources such as water and arable land are becoming increasingly scarce. As these challenges converge, it is more important than ever that we focus on solutions within our control to increase productivity and sustainability in agriculture.
There is good news in the fact that our industry has demonstrated an impressive capability to dramatically improve productivity. For example, in the past 70 years, farmers in the United States have increased corn production by 650 percent using 13 percent fewer acres of land, with a corresponding decrease in the use of crop inputs and natural resources. These types of productivity gains have been achieved through the adoption of modern business management practices on the farm and application of safe, proven technologies.
As climate change and weather volatility add new challenges, we must redouble efforts to drive new levels of innovation and create next generation technologies that will enable even greater productivity and sustainability gains in the coming years. Promising new frontiers of precision agriculture are enabling farmers to manage their crop inputs, water, and land resources with an unprecedented degree of effectiveness. We now have the capabilities to manage land in inches rather than acres, applying seed, nutrients, water, and other inputs so precisely that we significantly cut waste at all levels of the growing process. This type of productivity enhancement enables farmers to waste less and save more, driving the sustainability that we need for the future.
For example, our WinField operations offer farmers satellite imagery data incorporating 20 years of field and weather conditions, creating insights to guide their production process. This information helps them decide what type of seeds and crops to plant, and enables the use of tools such as GPS auto-steering, variable rate application, and yield mapping. Corresponding services in plant research and analysis include the development of weather resilient crops that can help farmers maintain yields through a wide range of climate conditions.
Our industry’s productivity and sustainability expertise also holds great promise in developing regions of the world, where weather and climate change can have a disproportionate, negative impact on food security.
To tackle these challenges, we’re leading a public-private partnership that is harnessing the power of renewable energy for powering agricultural growth. Our USAID-funded Powering African Agriculture initiative is identifying, commercializing and bringing to scale clean geothermal energy solutions in Kenya for drying crops, heating processing facilities, pasteurizing dairy, and heating greenhouses and fish farms.
We’re also focused on fostering home-grown innovation and closing the gender gap to increase food security. Our USAID-funded Innovations in Gender Equality program is helping Tanzanian female farmers design and scale-up their own solutions to key agricultural constraints, in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s D-Lab. They’ve already developed labor saving innovations to shell groundnuts and maize, extract palm oil, hull rice, and other farming tasks, and they are already thinking about new innovations to explore.
Maintaining global food security in the face of volatile weather and limited natural resources is both an obligation and a critical challenge for our industry. The stakes are high and our direction is clear: we must embrace the tools and expertise we possess to produce more, using fewer resources.