GLOBAL FARMER POLL: You say science will feed the world

New technologies and genetic modification will play the key role in feeding the world. This is the view of thousands of farmers from across the globe who gave views on solutions to feeding the world, in a poll led by Farmers Weekly.

In an unprecedented cross-continental collaboration, the views have been gathered from farmers in every corner of the world’s biggest agricultural economies. Working with Canada’s Country Guide and five other leading international farming publications, the poll, hosted on Farmers Weekly Interactive (FWi), has drawn votes from extensive sheep ranchers in Australia to intensive pork producers in Holland.

From the rugged upland peaks of Scotland to the vast cereal plains of Canada and the U.S. Midwest, those tasked with the responsibility of producing the food for the world’s burgeoning population — the farmers themselves — have finally had their say on how it should be done.

And it’s a resounding vote in favour of innovation and technical advances. The online poll found 37.1 per cent of respondents picked new technologies and genetic modification (GM) as their favoured factor from a choice of five that will be instrumental in how we nourish a growing population.

This was head-and-shoulders ahead of broader expertise through education and training (20.3 per cent), investment in research and development (18 per cent) and removal of trade barriers (14.7 per cent). Government intervention in food production trailed with less than 10 per cent of the votes.

These splits reflect the opinions of farmers in different nations, although support for new technologies and GM did not receive quite such a clear lead in the UK. The strongest support for this option was seen in the U.S. and Canada, with Canadian farmers also strongly advocating removal of trade barriers.

Meanwhile, there was barely a single vote in favour of government intervention from Australia and New Zealand, and Dutch farmers expressed strong support for education and training.

“Reliable productivity”

The result throws open the debate on GM: Should we embrace it as a sustainable solution or beware the technology that may yet turn out to have hollow promises?

“Farmers want access to innovation,” said Julian Little, communications and  government affairs manager at Bayer CropScience. “It’s the same whether it’s a farmer in East Anglia or East Africa. They want to try new technologies, to adapt them and to move their farming system on.”

Greater access to these is crucial, he believes. “We need to rack up food production without putting our resources in jeopardy. We can’t use the business-as-usual model. And allowing farmers access to innovation in some parts of the world and not others is not helpful.”

And GM technology will become pivotal as the world grapples with climate change, he adds. “We’ll see more volatility in world markets, and that’s the last thing farmers need. The tools to grow in marginal conditions, with access to the best plant protection products and technologies built into the seed to underpin a decent yield — these are the factors that will deliver reliable productivity and more stability as the climate turns more challenging.”

Much of the world’s existing food supply comes from areas on a climate change knife edge, Little said. This means opportunities for areas such as Northern Europe, predicted to be less affected. “UK farmers will have to produce not just more, but much more as this ‘perfect storm’ takes hold.”

Soil Association director Patrick Holden agrees that innovation holds the key, but believes entrepreneurial flair and keener husbandry skills will show the way forward, rather than a reliance on one technology.

“Feeding the world sustainably is the biggest challenge facing not just farming, but the whole of humanity. All barriers must fall aside as we work together to seek solutions. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t debate the issues.”

With Roundup-ready maize, canola and soya now grown the world over, and GM alfalfa close to approval, a frightening proportion of global food production is now in a monoculture, he noted.

“In biodiversity terms it is an unfolding catastrophe. In terms of choice for the farmer, most are on a GM treadmill they cannot get off. And how vulnerable is the world’s population now that it relies on so few species to provide its food?”

The only truly sustainable farming system, he said, is one that doesn’t rely on nitrogen fertilizer or chemicals to maintain production.

“Dangerous and delusionary”

“We need a change of mindset to wean us off our dependency on cereal-based systems and monocultures and allow a greater role in our diets for vegetables and red meat,” said Holden, who represents the largest organic ag group in the UK.

“By all means, we must welcome the best use of technology to ensure we can exceed current levels of production — hybrid seed and mechanization are just two examples that have made a massive difference in the past. But it is so dangerous and delusionary to believe GM will solve the world’s food problems.”

Maybe the challenge of feeding the world won’t be met by the U.S. corn belt, nor will Europe’s livestock sheds meet a growing demand. UN estimates of world population growth show head count in Africa is set to almost double over the next 40 years, and the Asian population alone will swell by an extra billion. Perhaps the extra demand will be met by building productivity on a local scale.

“Whenever farmers look to raise yields they often look first at their seed,” Little noted. “We’re involved in that process, whether it’s in the developed or emerging economies. Technology and innovation is part and parcel of this and for every 10 pounds we make in sales we invest one pound in finding a better product. But we also make sure we give the training and technical back up so that farmers make the most of that technology.”

Another advocate for the need for innovative technologies is Caroline Drummond from LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming). But these should be incorporated alongside best farming practice, not as an alternative, she says. As global markets develop there are opportunities for all farmers to learn from others on how technical advances are integrated into existing farming systems.

“As we adopt new technologies, we have to be very careful we don’t do so at the expense of social inclusion. It’s incredibly humbling when you see the level of productivity achieved by Kenyan farmers that supply Waitrose, for example, and the low carbon footprint associated with it. Farmers in developing countries have a very strong social cohesion in their farming communities that puts local needs first. The trick when integrating new technology is to do so without alienating society.”

And the winner is…

Congratulations to Cynthia DuVal, from Enumclaw, Wash., who won tickets to the World Cup in South Africa through the global farmer poll. Her name was drawn from more than 10,000 entries worldwide in the free prize draw sponsored by Bayer CropScience. 

“I don’t believe that any one of these strategies will have the impact that we need to have to feed the world,” she said.

“The challenge is a failure in human thinking and the recent tragedy in Haiti underscores the point. The world looked on as thousands of people suffered from lack of medicine, food and water despite the fact that it was stacked up at the airport in huge quantities not far away.

“There are human behaviour issues that are being ignored in favour of logistics and technology.”

Duval operates the DuVal Ethnographic Research Center and Change Agency at Enumclaw, about 50 km east of Tacoma, Wash., and is studying small-farm lifestyles.

— Tom Allen-Stevens is a contributing writer to Farmers Weekly and operates Wicklesham Farm near Faringdon in Oxfordshire, England.

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