Agriculture's Missing Ingredient: Efficiency

29th August 2011

Agriculture faces a looming crisis, but a host of bio-based solutions could come to the rescue, argues Martin Brown.

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Here’s a stomach-curdling thought: by 2050, the global population is expected to reach nine billion and, in order to feed all these people, we’ll have to increase the world’s food production by 70 percent.

Unfortunately, however, there’s a huge amount of inefficiency all along the global food chain -- in industrialized nations, where 670 million tons of food are wasted each year during the manufacturing process, as well as in the home; and in developing countries, where 630 million tons of food are lost annually in the fields, in storage, and in transit to the marketplace.

Indeed, between 50 percent and 60 percent of all grain is lost in storage in developing nations, while up to 60 percent of rice is lost before it even gets close to consumers.

These high levels of food loss in the developing world are contributing to the current volatility in global food production -- and the result is soaring food prices, increasing hunger, and even greater potential for political instability.

The sad truth, though, is that we simply can’t control all of the variables in the food volatility equation: severe weather that devastates crop yields, for instance, or high oil prices that make transporting food to market prohibitive in a number of developing nations.

Powerful commercial factors that are hard to combat also add to food-chain volatility. A good example here is the diversion of crops for a headlong rush into biofuels, as developed countries mandate greater use of non-fossil fuels and vibrant emerging nations seek new sources of energy.

And, finally, there are geopolitics that can’t always be steered in the right direction.

In an effort to shore up its food security and lessen its growing reliance on crops from the United States, for example, China has recently been buying or leasing large-scale tracts of farm land in Latin America and Africa. The Chinese aren’t alone; other capital-exporting countries are also snapping up millions of crop-growing acres in some of the world’s poorest and least stable nations. In essence, vast purchases like this take major parcels of food-producing land out of circulation, adding to the world’s food volatility.

The politics in India present another fairly unmanageable challenge for global food stability. To put it simply, in a country where millions go hungry every day, and where soaring food prices present a real societal problem, bumper harvests of grain can often be seen rotting in sacks by the Indian roadside because the government hasn’t built enough storage infrastructure.

Greater efficiencies by themselves cannot overcome these seemingly intractable variables that plague the global food chain. But they can help hedge against the increasing volatility we are seeing in global food production today. Supporting this view, a major UN study indicates that if we can cut food waste in half, then global food production would only have to increase by 35 percent over the next 40 years to feed the world’s population.

The good news is that many breakthrough bio-solutions are currently being developed and implemented in an effort to make the global food chain run more smoothly.

One way that these new bio-solutions are boosting efficiency and tamping down global food volatility is by attacking pests and pathogens, which prey on seeds in the soil, crops on the land, and harvests awaiting sale. According to the UN, an estimated 20 percent to 40 percent of potential harvests are lost in developing nations as a result of pests and pathogens.

This bio-solution benefit is part of a necessary and much larger efficiency ethos that has taken hold on virtually every resource-constrained continent these days -- in science, technology, health care, business, government, education, and a host of other sectors and segments. And it clearly shows how cutting-edge innovation can emerge from the lab to help confront pressing social and economic issues that dramatically impact quality of life for millions of people the world over.

When it comes to the specifics of global food production, however, we need to focus on four particular problem-solution sets, each of which has a significant bearing on the all-important drive toward efficiency.

· Inefficient seed treatments. Seed treatments are a formulation of insecticide, fungicide, or other active ingredients that coat the seed before it is planted. This protects the seed in its most vulnerable early days from soil-born diseases. Obviously, more successful germinations mean greater yield. Unfortunately, treated seeds are very expensive and farmers have to purchase new ones each year in order to grow yields. With the right, safe and easy-to-use bio-solution, however, I believe that we can add considerable efficiency and economy to the process by helping farmers save their seeds for re-use and mixture with their own seed treatment. 

· Inefficient crop spraying. The destructive Yellow Stem Borer moth (Scirpophaga incertulas) is the predominant stem borer species in India. The larvae bore into the stem of crops, where they are protected from pesticide sprays. This makes spraying hugely inefficient. The spraying of insecticides also kills beneficial insects, which simply increases the inefficiency. One path to greater efficiency -- and less inefficient and environmentally degrading spraying -- might involve disrupting the adult moth mating system with a safe bio-solution.

· Inefficient grain storage. Fumigation is one of the main methods for treating grain around the world, and it’s a hugely time-consuming and labor-intensive procedure. It’s also hazardous, and can lead to fire or explosion. A more efficient (and certainly safer) approach might be to use a bio-solution that could be added to the grain as a mixture and provide long-term protection from pest re-infestation. Inefficient and volatile fumigation, in contrast, is often unsuccessful, and must be repeated.

· Inefficient food manufacturing. There are five key moth species that infest food-manufacturing sites in industrialized nations by making webbing inside machinery and laying their eggs there. The problem is that food manufacturers usually employ a labor-intensive spraying process that only kills adult moths that are out in the open. This is ineffective -- the adult moths and larvae still get into the final food product -- and it’s also inefficient, because spraying means that food production lines have to be shut down at significant cost.

An alternate, and more efficient, method for dealing with this issue might center on a safe bio-solution. This solution would be placed throughout the food manufacturing facility and disrupt the moths’ mating cycles, providing 24x7 control that doesn’t disturb output or wreak havoc on productivity.

Today’s emphasis on greater efficiency in global food production has tremendous bottom-line consequences for the world at large. If we can embrace and harness new bio-solutions that save time, energy, money and manpower -- while protecting the environment -- then we can deliver better and more food to the planet’s rapidly expanding population over the next four decades.

Without efficiency-enhancing bio-solutions, however, we could put a countless number of people everywhere at serious risk. 

 

- Ends -

 

Martin Brown - Managing Director, Exosect

 

 

 

 
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