The Challenge of Feeding 7 Billion People

Andre Dias, Monsanto Brazil Business Lead 2/2/2012

O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper originally ran this opinion piece by André Dias, Monsanto's business lead in Brazil, on January 16, 2012. The article can be found in full here. To learn more about our commitment to improving agriculture, visit our sustainable agriculture section.

At the end of last year baby Piotr was born in Kaliningrad, Russia, which symbolically marked the elevation of the Earth's population to 7 billion. Piotr represents, at the same time, the challenges and the opportunities we have ahead of us. After all, how to feed more than 7 billion people? Before Piotr becomes an adolescent, we will have an extra 1 billion people on the planet, reaching 8 billion. When he leaves university, he will be in the company of another 9 billion people.

Despite all the progress that boosts life standard in several regions in the world, reality shows that the number of people starving in the world is increasing. The World Food Program warns us that there are nearly 1 billion people starving on the planet, more than the populations of the United States, Canada and the European Union together.

Considering these two challenges, the demand for food is expected to double by 2050. Putting it in a different way, we will have to produce, throughout the next 50 years, the same amount of food we have produced throughout the last 10,000 years.

Guaranteeing the provision of enough food, fiber and energy demands the solution of a complex equation with many variables: change in the world’s dietary standards, with the increasing consumption of animal protein; reduction of the planted area globally because of the advance of urbanization and industrialization; logistics and distribution problems; increased use of biofuels as a source of alternative energy; global warming; and the need to preserve natural resources. The way out is to find ways to produce more while we conserve the environment and improve people's life quality.

Today, agriculture is spread over 1.8 billion hectares in the world, an area equivalent to South America. At the same time, it is responsible for 70 percent of water consumption on the planet. This shows the scope of the challenge of feeding 7 billion people. How to double the production and at the same time, mitigate additional impacts?

In this scenario, technology plays a key role. It was only with it that we managed to deviate from the spectrum released by Thomas Malthus, who in 1798 predicted that the population would grow faster than food supply. Despite the population growth, it was overcome by people like Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution and Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, who proved that, with ingenuity, we can overcome this challenge. Technology applied to the fields prevented catastrophes and helped us increase agricultural yield to levels never before achieved in history, in regions that have had access to these innovations.

This revolution also took place in Brazil. Forty years ago, the country was a food importer. Today, we are one of the leading producers and exporters worldwide, with a key role in the mission of mitigating hunger in the world. From importers, we became leaders or vice leaders in the production and export of agricultural products such as sugar, beef, coffee, orange juice, soybeans, ethanol and chicken. And the predictions for the future are even more optimistic. Projections of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA, its acronym in English) estimate that Brazil will reach, in 2020, the position of the world’s largest agricultural power. As in many other segments, the eyes of world are on us. We have a great advantage: our Country has dedicated farmers, from those on small farms - who seek technology to improve their lives and the lives of their families – to young entrepreneurs, with strong technical background, who choose the field to make a difference in the world.

The need to find solutions to feed the world sustainably inspires companies such as Embrapa, farmers, the government, schools, scientists and entrepreneurs. There are plenty of opportunities. There are several technological solutions that can cause an increase in productivity by hectare and efficiency on the fields, from pest- and disease-resistant seeds that generate more nutritional foods to more modern farming machines, which allow for more precise planting and harvesting and less loss of grains, as well as irrigation techniques. At the same time, education, credit and incentives are also essential. It is important to remember that great part of those who starve in the world are small farmers who still have not managed, due to lack of access to resources and technology, to break the vicious cycle of poverty in the countryside. Solutions for a more sustainable world include an alliance of all.