World Food Awareness month: Innovation can help to create #ZeroHunger world

Submitted by Rolina Vorster on Mon, 10/29/2018 - 20:34
Farm worker harvesting potatoes

A world without hunger can be achieved if we are realistic about our challenges and use our resources wisely.

As we celebrate food awareness month in October (in conjunction with World Food Day) and assess our progress towards achieving a hunger-free world by 2030, we cannot ignore the positive role that innovation can play in helping us overcome our challenges. The use of innovation is, in fact, particularly important for a developing country like South Africa, which has a rapidly growing population, limited arable land and a generally arid climate.

Globally, the challenges that the agricultural and food industry faces are well known. As the world’s population is projected to increase by more than three billion people in the next thirty years, we are faced with the prospect of almost a quarter of a million more mouths to feed each and every day.

Added to this, the perennial challenge for farmers all over the world is the weather. South Africa is no exception with our relatively low rainfall patterns and the increased likelihood of suffering from more extreme weather thanks to climate change.

Further, insects, diseases and weeds are a consistent threat to yields, and can even destroy crops, on which the entire agricultural value chain depends. As recently at 2017, the scourge of fall army worm cost African farmers billions in losses as a result of the destruction wrought by the pest.

South Africa also has a shortage of arable land. Recently, our Minister of Agriculture, Senzeni Zokwana, highlighted that a maximum of only 15 percent of South Africa’s land can be used for crop production, with a whopping 50 percent of our water used in irrigation, [1] demonstrating just how fragile our agricultural economy actually is.

Given the pressure to produce growing amounts of food within the constraints of worsening climatic conditions and a massive reliance on irrigation, it is clear that South African agriculture has to maximise its productivity.

 

Using science intelligently

In many sectors, the use of scientific research and development has seen tremendous advances, and agriculture is no exception. Some of the major gains over the past decades have included the development of products to protect crops from insects, diseases and weeds. The results have been astounding with rice yields, wheat, corn, soybeans and potatoes all experiencing huge increases in yield percentages. However, what is less well recognised is that it takes about 10 years of testing for just one crop protection product to reach the market, eventually making essential tools available to farmers to dramatically increase their productivity in an environmentally sustainable manner.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) helps to not only manage difficult growing conditions, but also increases yields by protecting harvests from pests and weeds while using fewer resources. They offer growth opportunities for farmers, especially for small-scale producers, in less developed parts of the world. 

It must be highlighted that GM crops are the world's best-researched agricultural products and have been grown since the mid-1990s. Independent institutions like the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the U.S. National Academies of Science all say that GM-based food is just as safe as conventional food.

 The emergence of digital farming is also particularly exciting as this is able to ensure that farmers worldwide can rely on and benefit from advances in sustainability through higher predictability of yield and input, improved ease of application, and customised advice and services. 

New digital technologies open up entirely new opportunities by optimising the application of crop protection products and fertilisers in industrialised nations, but can also bring highly specialised expertise to the world’s poorest countries. Research indicates that digital farming has the ability to increase yields by up to 25 percent and reduce the impact of weather on harvest yields by the same proportion.

On a final note, it is important that we all recognise that agriculture plays a particularly important role in the economies of developing countries. Small farmers produce up to 80 percent of the food needed, and each agricultural job supports many other jobs across the value chain, which would include those providing services to farmers, logistics and processing of the end-product. It is therefore not surprising that President Ramaphosa has placed such a large emphasis on agriculture in his recently announced stimulus package.

There are many challenges that stand in the way of agriculture’s ability to provide the food our growing world needs, but science is an enabler and can provide the vital tools it needs to succeed. We must use them well.

[1] Reuters, No more than 15% of SA land is arable – agriculture minister””, The Citizen (24 May 2017), available at https://citizen.co.za/news/south-africa/1523861/no-15-sa-land-arable-agriculture-minister/.

 


[1] Reuters, No more than 15% of SA land is arable – agriculture minister””, The Citizen (24 May 2017), available at https://citizen.co.za/news/south-africa/1523861/no-15-sa-land-arable-agriculture-minister/.

 

Tasniem Patel l Bayer Southern Africa

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