Meeting the Challenge to Feed the World


The U.S. presidential election is less than a month away–which makes this as good a time as any to remember that politics isn’t everything.

No matter who is in or out of power in Washington, India, Brazil or the UK, we’ll always need farmers.

In “Gulliver’s Travels,” author Jonathan Swift tried to put things in perspective: “Whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.”

That’s the spirit behind next week’s third annual Global Farmer to Farmer Roundtable, sponsored by Truth About Trade and Technology and coinciding with the World Food Prize in Des Moines. We’re bringing together 21 farmers from 20 countries on six continents.

The vision is to build a global network of farmers who support and will promote access to technology for all farmers, regardless of where they’re from, how much they harvest, what their governments tell them they can or cannot grow, or even the agronomic practices they use.

The goal hardly could be more important. The head of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Jacques Diouf, recently said that the world must double its food production by 2050.

“We are facing a challenge of enormous proportions,” he said. He called for spending $30 billion per year to achieve this goal.

There’s no guarantee that goal can be met. Farmers grow more food today than at any point in human history, but the number of malnourished people in the world actually jumped by 75 million last year. The culprit is soaring food prices: Demand is rising relative to supply.

The answer is to increase supply. The solutions involve a more robust trading environment, improved infrastructure, and better equipment. Fertilizer is critical, too. Says Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient and founder of the World Food Prize: “Without fertilizer, forget it. The game is over.”

The crucial element, however, may be biotechnology. Genetically modified crops are a proven method of boosting yield without requiring more land, chemicals or fuel. Very soon, GM plants may also require less water.

Yet access to it varies from place to place. The farmers that we’re hosting in Iowa next week are diverse not just in geography, but also in their ability to use biotechnology.

Enrique Duhau of Argentina runs a huge farming operation–190,000 acres of corn and soybeans. Because Argentina accepts biotechnology, the vast majority of his crops are genetically enhanced. Yet his nation’s export tariffs make it difficult to sell what he grows to foreign buyers.

“Countries should be open to foreign trade, because trade benefits all parties involved,” says Duhau. “Markets are quite closed in Argentina.”

In Romania, Valentin Petrosu doesn’t have to deal with sky-high export tariffs, but he wishes he had the same easy access to biotechnology that Duhau enjoys. A few years ago, Petrosu was allowed to plant biotech soybeans. Then his country banned them when they joined the EU, due to unfounded fears about their safety. “We had one good crop, and they took it away from us,” he complains.

The farms of Duhau and Petrosu dwarf that of Mekala Velangan Reddy of India. He farms biotech cotton on a plot of 27 acres. He praises GMOs for how they have increased his yields and income. “We save time and pesticide sprays, there is more predictability, and stability of production,” he says. “Biotech seeds can boost productivity, and improve the yields and status of India’s farmers.”

Another small-resource farmer, Alfred M. Nderitu of Kenya, dreams of using biotechnology on his farm. He recently visited South Africa, which has accepted biotech crops, and wishes his own country would pass legislation that allows farmers to take advantage of this tool of modern agriculture.

If we’re going to meet the huge challenge of doubling food production by 2050, our governments will have to enable the success of Duhau, Petrosu, Reddy, and Nderitu. These farmers come from different circumstances and face different problems, but all would benefit from policies that unleash their potential to grow as much as they can.

Unfortunately, we can’t rely on politicians to do the right thing for us. We farmers must take matters into our own hands–so that we can put food into the mouths of others.

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology.

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