Americans have a kind of love-hate relationship with the way their food is produced.
It’s understandable. There is an idea of what agriculture should be – similar to prior generations that grew their own food for their own families to consume. You would then sell whatever might be left over for a small chunk of change.
In a world full of boogeymen, the agricultural industry has become one of the most enduring. For example, see Panera Bread’s inaccurate portrayal of chicken raised with antibiotics as “lazy.” See also Chipotle’s cavalcade of emotional manipulation disguised as a commercial that depicts modern farmers as multinational corporations gleefully destroying land for a nickel. For Chipotle, it’s a powerful emotional narrative that has been used to sell burritos. However, the story it tells is one that has harmful effects beyond simple misinformation.
The major truth currently facing agriculture is that less than 2 percent of the U.S. population is involved in production agriculture. Couple that with the exponential population growth worldwide. The result: Fewer and fewer people are successfully producing safe, reliable, affordable food.
Norman Borlaug, often considered the father of the modern green revolution, discovered that through genetic cross breeding, humans could create hardier, higher-yielding strains of crops that could be grown in areas traditionally inhospitable to sustainable agriculture. It’s estimated that his discoveries have saved more than 1 billion people from dying of starvation.
Technology has only progressed since his discoveries, with advances each year allowing farmers to use fewer input – like water and fertilizer – while still being able to increase yields. Food technology has saved countless lives and will continue to do so as long as misinformation isn’t allowed to perpetuate myths about the ill effects of biotechnology and modern farming.
That’s not to say that genetic modification of crops is a panacea. Borlaug himself said his discoveries had not turned the world into any sort of utopia. However, it is a key piece of the puzzle. As water becomes increasingly scarce and valuable and use of input such as fertilizer and pesticides becomes more precise through things like precision applications, it’s an amalgamation of pieces that have to come together to help ensure a steady, safe supply of food.
The World Food Prize was created by Borlaug in 1986 as a way to recognize individuals in agriculture who could be held up as role models and inspiration for others. According to the prize’s site, the prize is the foremost international award recognizing – without regard to race, religion, nationality or political beliefs – the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world.
Marc Van Montagu of Belgium and Mary-Dell Chilton and Robert T. Fraley of the United States were named the 2013 World Food Prize winners earlier this fall. It’s refreshing to see the prize given to three people with such strong ties to the agricultural biotechnology field.
Not only that, two of the three work for major agricultural firms, including Syngenta and Monsanto. This column isn’t intended to get into the argument of private companies owning plant genetics. That’s an entire other issue, also worthy of calm and intelligent debate. However, the undeniable fact is that the science developed by these companies has worked to save lives as well as create a more sustainable model of agriculture.
According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, from 1996 to 2011, 328 million tons of additional food, feed and fiber were produced worldwide by biotech crops.
As the World Food Prize announcement said: “As the world grapples with how to feed the estimated 9 billion people who will inhabit the planet by the year 2050, it will be critical to continue building upon the scientific advancements and revolutionary agricultural discoveries of the 2013 World Food Prize Laureates.”