World population trends have led many experts to predict farmers worldwide will need to double their output by 2050 to feed the global population. Can we do it?

Despite a reduction in farm land, restrictive government policies and the need to grow more energy, Vern Hawkins, vice-president of U.S. Commercial Operations for Syngenta, says we can double production by 2050.

“In the 50 years preceding 2000 most developed countries in the world did double their food output — that alone should tell us it is a doable task. The biggest exception to food production increases during that time span came from African countries, which offer great opportunity for increased production using modern technology,” Hawkins says.

“Doubling production in the next 50 years won’t be easy and the longer we wait to overcome some of the challenges that stand in our way, the steeper the hill will be to climb,” he adds.

“One of the biggest obstacles to increased food production is solving our energy problems. More specifically, reducing our dependence, worldwide, on oil-based energy is critical.

The only real energy source we have is the sun. There is universal agreement that we can produce more energy from the sun on top of the ground with crops than we can under the ground with oil and coal. How to efficiently grow energy without significantly disrupting our current and future food supply is not so certain.

“The U.S. has set a goal of 30 billion gallons of ethanol by 2012. At a conversion rate of something less than three gallons per bushel of corn — that demand alone will force grain producers to dramatically increase production. Similar, if somewhat less ambitious ethanol and biodiesel goals have been set by most other countries in the world,” Hawkins says

There is no doubt grain production will have to increase dramatically over the next 50 years, if agriculture is to meet the demands for food. Fortunately, technological developments in corn, soybean, wheat and barley varieties, combined with technologically advanced crop protection systems, is driving yield and quality of grain up dramatically in most regions of the world.

Still, the U.S., Russia and a small handful of other countries are the only net exporters of grain in the world. That has to change and technology clearly offers the ability to allow many more countries to move from importers to exporters of grain.

In Russia, for example, only 20 percent of their farm land is intensively managed using modern technology, Hawkins points out.

“Improvements in the technology of crop protection alone could increase grain yields by 30-40 percent across all grain crops worldwide. Despite the availability of this technology, major grain producing areas in South America and Asia remain among the least productive, but provide an excellent opportunity for growth,” the Syngenta executive says.

“Global climate change and how agriculture worldwide adapts to these changes will be a key factor in our ability to double food production by 2050. Again, technology is the trump card in overcoming dramatic climate shifts from one region of the world to another,” Hawkins adds.

“I believe, and the leadership of our company believes, that with the proper implementation of technology worldwide, we will be able to feed ourselves well beyond 2050. However, failing to utilize technology to combat the negative effects of global climate change could cause us to fail,” Hawkins contends.

“Government guidelines and regulations have limited the adaptation of technology on a global basis, limiting farmers’ freedom to operate. Educating the general public and the legislators who set the guidelines for food production is essential to producing laws that will allow farmers to do their jobs in the most productive ways,” he adds.

A recent survey of 1,000 toxicologists, sanctioned by Syngenta, indicates some of the challenges that face U.S. farmers in their quest for freedom of operation. Results from these 1,000 professionals, who deal with risk on a daily basis, indicate agriculture is not playing on a level field when it comes to technology versus risks.

Nearly 90 percent of the toxicologists said news reporting of agricultural risk is not balanced. They nearly unanimously agreed that reports that natural and/or organic food is safer than food from conventional crops are biased.

“We must find the decision makers, worldwide, and be certain these people understand the importance of technology to food production. And, we must seek support of these decision makers in allowing farmers the freedom to operate — to use these technologically advanced tools safely and efficiently to meet our goal of doubling food output in the next 50 years,” Hawkins says.

“To positively affect decision-makers, agriculture must have a unified and compelling message. That message must be compelling enough to drive public opinion, which can drive legislative actions,” he adds.

Food is a global challenge. Good communication on a global scale is critical to the implementation of technology. Despite great strides in developing a compelling and unified message, agriculture often falls short of delivering the message.

Tom Hunt, executive director of the Crop Protection Association of North Carolina, says failure to deliver the message became all too clear to him during a recent effort to defend the North Carolina Ag Mart.

“On one particular issue, I went back and checked every source I could, to find out how many positive and how many negative comments were made about the issue. From our side, there were six e-mail messages. From their side there were over 30,000 messages on Facebook, Twitter, and numerous other social communication networks,” Hunt says.

The North Carolina leader echoes the sentiments of many agriculture leaders that our industry is woefully behind in utilizing social networks so prevalent on the Internet. These networks have the capability of mobilizing thousands of people and generating thousands of messages in a short period of time — and political leaders appear to be using these tools to gather information from their constituents.

Despite the formidable challenges ahead, agriculture has the tools and the people to meet the demands for food in the future and to produce twice as much food in 50 years than we produce today.

e-mail: rroberson@farmpress.com