Euractiv | 24 February 2020
Embracing technology to feed a growing world
by Sonny Perdue
It is time for America and Europe to work together to solve the next great challenge facing us – to produce enough food, with fewer inputs, to feed a growing world population – which means embracing innovation and technology in a safe, sustainable agriculture, writes Sonny Perdue.
Sonny Perdue is the US Secretary of Agriculture.
The United States shares a rich history of partnership and cooperation with our European friends. When we work together to solve the world’s economic and security challenges, everyone benefits.
This was the case following the Second World War, where the opening of trade between the United States and Europe unleashed an unprecedented and multi-generational economic boom that has lifted billions of people around the world out of poverty.
It is time we re-embrace our shared histories and work together to solve the next great challenge facing us, which is to produce enough food, with fewer inputs, to feed a growing world population.
By the year 2050, the world’s population is expected to be 9.8 billion. The healthy feeding of that population increase literally presents a life and death challenge. The United States has embraced innovation and technology in agriculture to solve this challenge.
We want Europe to lead with us by taking an innovative approach to agriculture in order to produce safe, high-quality and affordable food. Only by embracing transformative technologies are we going to be able to produce enough food, fiber, and fuel for the future – and do so in a safe and sustainable way.
“Do right and feed everyone.” That’s our motto at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and it’s a theme I repeatedly emphasized during my visit to Europe last month.
I returned home more convinced than ever that farmers and policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic can – and must – come together to achieve this noble goal. Modern agriculture is part of the solution, not the problem.
As I told my fellow agriculture ministers, together we represent the most productive farmers on the planet, and we share a common responsibility to feed the growing world population. But that’s not going to happen unless we sustainably increase our productivity and create a viable model for the rest of the world.
As leaders in agriculture, it’s our moral obligation to assist our countries’ farmers and food producers by recognizing, embracing, and enabling all three dimensions of agricultural sustainability: environmental, social and economic.
Environmental sustainability is critical if we are going to maintain the health of our soil, water, and air while meeting food and fiber demand. The only way we’re going to feed the world while minimizing agriculture’s impact on the environment is by producing more with less total inputs.
Farmers are some of our best conservationists. More than anyone else, they want and need the land to be healthy. That’s why they’ve been leaders in embracing technology and innovation – they understand that utilizing technology will enable them to do more with less, better protecting the environment and reducing the impact of farming.
We have been making progress. Over the last 90 years, commodity production in the United States has increased by 400%, while acreage in production has dropped by 9%.
In a similar vein, improved crop varieties and crop management practices in the United States have led to increases in nutrient and water-use efficiency, helping to mediate both expenses and the environmental impact.
And in the livestock sector, efficiency improvements have significantly driven down greenhouse gas outputs, to where the U.S. dairy herd now produces roughly twice as much milk with about 60% fewer cows than 90 years ago.
Social sustainability is also critical. When we increase productivity and efficiency, we contribute to food security by improving the accessibility and affordability of food. We also know that food secure nations have less global conflict and human migration. Improving environmental and economic sustainability is all fine and good, but only if consumers can afford to put safe, high-quality food on the table.
The good news is, rising productivity has also helped make food more affordable. Since 1960, major commodity prices have dropped by half, helping to make the price of staple goods such as bread, eggs, meat, and milk – more affordable for American consumers and for consumers around the world, including those facing food insecurity.
Finally, environmental and social sustainability will not be achieved if there is no economic sustainability for the producers. Farming needs to be profitable. If farmers cannot earn enough to invest in producing a surplus, we will lose the foundation of our food economy and regress to subsistence farming.
We also need to entice the next generation of young farmers into what’s not just a profession, but a way of life. While farming is a wonderful way of life, it also needs to create a livelihood. Increasing productivity is critical to ensure decent livelihoods for farmers and farmworkers.
We can never achieve environmental or social sustainability without economic sustainability. And we can never achieve economic sustainability while depriving farmers and ranchers of the modern tools of productivity they need to be profitable. In fact, technological innovation is fundamental to making progress across all three pillars of sustainability.
It was clear to me during my meetings and conversations with my European counterparts that we are all joined in our desire to improve the sustainability of agriculture and food production.
And it’s clear that innovation is key to all aspects of agricultural sustainability. We must redouble our efforts to bring the best science to this effort and to provide our producers with the tools they need to be successful.
We must remove constraints to the adoption of innovative new approaches and technologies, including overly burdensome and unnecessary regulatory restrictions, and will to speak truth to our citizens about technology, productivity and safety.
President Trump has made it clear that we cannot achieve environmental and social sustainability without economic sustainability for our farmers. We want to invite our European allies to join with us in those goals. If we work together, I am confident we can continue to feed a growing world.