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How Science and Technology Can Help Us Feed the Future

By Director of the Office of Agricultural Research and Policy

Each year in June, the World Food Prize recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions to global food security.

We know that global food production will have to increase by at least 60 percent to support the estimated world population of nine billion people by 2050, on less land and with fewer natural resources like water.

Advancements in science and technology—from drip irrigation systems to conservation tillage to integrated pest management—have raised the efficiency and productivity of agricultural resources over the last decade in both developed and developing countries and can help us meet these challenges.

This year’s World Food Prize focuses on biotechnology, which, particularlyin context of a changing climate and sustainability, has the potential to improve food production by increasing yields on existing farmland, increasing nutritional value of crops, and boosting climate, pest and disease resilience in agriculture.

Feed the Future is investing in a broad range of research and development activities within its research portfolio to support global food security.

This includes efforts—implemented with a broad base of public and private partners—to utilize technology to solve major agricultural challenges and improve global food security, in some cases including the development and use of genetically engineered (GE) crops.

The use of GE is a decision made by our host country partners as one of the options they can utilize as they work to improve food security, but it is not a requirement of Feed the Future. This is underpinned by the Feed the Future’s approach to support countries in determining their own food security priorities and plans.

Feed the Future also works with partner countries to build biotechnology regulatory capacity, helping them develop their own ability to reach decisions that reflect sound science and best practice in managing biotechnology.

In all cases, our investments in biotechnology are led by some of the brightest scientists working with our partner institutions. Scientists like Jimmy Lamo, of the National Agriculture Research Organization in Uganda, who is working on the NEWEST (nitrogen use efficient, water use efficient, and salt-tolerant) rice project. As the name suggests, this project is using biotechnology to develop NERICA rice varieties that can grow with limited nitrogen and water or in high saline environments.

Not only will these new rice varieties help improve rice production throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, they will also help farmers use resources wisely, reducing their fertilizer costs as well as any potential environmental impacts.

In a wider sense, these new varieties are an example of Feed the Future’s efforts to enhance productivity of farmland, while at the same time reducing pressures on more fragile lands by  reducing deforestation, which can occur when farmers seek out new fertile land.

One scientist from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Kenya, Dr. Leena Tripathi, is developing molecular methods to facilitate the genetic modification of a wide range of locally preferred varieties of banana. With support from Feed the Future, these new molecular methods allow for the transfer of genetic resistance to diseases—like banana bacterial wilt, which costs farmers $500 million annually in crop losses—to many different varieties of bananas.

A new Feed the Future project led by Washington State University is using both conventional and newly developed genetic tools to identify genes associated with heat tolerance in wheat.  Because wheat yields decrease dramatically when temperatures rise above 82°F, innovative projects like this one are critical to develop solutions as temperatures around the world are likely to increase due to climate change.

While biotechnology alone won’t solve theproblem of growing more with less to meet future generations’ needs, it is part of a package of technologies that can increase agricultural production and help reduce poverty.

Given that potential, it’s an important tool in Feed the Future’s modern, comprehensive approach to reducing poverty, hunger and undernutrition.

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