Research to develop food technology is vital to feed the world

Tuesday, 09 March, 2010

To feed a world population projected to exceed 9 billion people by 2050, technology that can enhance food production will be a significant asset, according to a Kansas State University agricultural economist.

Ted Schroeder, university distinguished professor of agricultural economics, said dramatically increased food prices around the world in recent years and social unrest over food scarcity in countries like Argentina, Bangladesh, Egypt, Mozambique and many others - combined with a growing world population - are raising the question: What will it take to feed the world's population 40 years from now?

Schroeder said that technology isn’t a magic wand to make these problems disappear but it can contribute significantly to increasing food production. He cites how Iowa's corn yields sped past Italy's when Iowa farmers embraced yield-enhancing, genetically modified corn varieties that have been shunned by Italy and much of the European Union.

“It shows so starkly what technology can do to increase food production with the same fixed resource base,” Schroeder said. “Technology discovery, technology development and technology adoption are huge in terms of food prices, who will produce the food and how we're going to feed the world.”

Genetically modifying crops certainly isn't a new technology, Schroeder said, but advanced abilities for DNA gene mapping - especially in animal populations - is a promising area of development.

"Any technology that increases our ability to understand and predict how an animal or plant is likely to react to a stimulus or environmental factor, or technology that targets managing specific food product attributes produced from crops and livestock, is going to make a substantial difference in providing affordable, high-quality, safe food to the growing base of global consumers," Schroeder said.

One of the biggest challenges to food technologies that could feed a growing population is reduced support for research and development. Although public research support has declined, Schroeder said private investment, driven by profit incentive, is growing rapidly.

“The evidence for how technology development can better feed the world is so dramatic that we'd better make sure we find ways to support that research and that we don't create unfounded social and political impediments to research and development,” Schroeder said. “If we create political and social barricades to food production technology development, we'll ultimately not only need a reduced global population growth rate, but we'll also need a reduced population, period. At some point we'll have exhausted our potential to produce given fixed resources, and food prices will be so high that people will rebel - and not just in poor countries.”

Schroeder's message to beef producers is a positive one. He said that a world population that's growing - and growing increasingly wealthy - will demand more beef. Moreover, new beef production technologies can increase and improve beef's position in future diets around the world.

“Beef is a huge winner, because when incomes grow, people want meat proteins," Schroeder said. "And there's a strong direct relationship between income per capita and beef consumption per capita.”

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