Feeding The World

By Sandy K. Johnson

The world’s population will double by 2050. While that seems far away, the race to figure out how to feed 10 billion people is under way today. Just in the United States, farmers who make up less than 1 percent of the population are responsible for feeding 319 million Americans.

Two important innovations in agriculture are helping make this tall task possible: genetic sequencing of every plant and the digitization of agriculture.

Once the human genome was mapped, scientists turned their attention to plants. Just as a human’s DNA can be mapped, so can a plant’s. “We not only know every gene in that plant … we are literally breeding gene by gene to make improvements” in plants to stamp out disease and pests, said Robert Fraley, chief technology officer of Monsanto and winner of the World Food Prize in 2013.

The second advance is technology in agriculture. Examples: data science tools, satellites flying high overhead, drones flying low, sensors in the field, the ability to map fields meter by meter. “The average tractor has more computer power today than the first spaceships that went to the moon,” Fraley said.

Science has dramatically increased farm yields. In the 1970s, corn yields averaged 75 bushels an acre. Today, it is 175 bushels. At the high end, the “prize” goes to a Georgia farmer whose yield was an astonishing 503 bushels of corn per acre.

Why does yield matter? First of all, farmers are paid by the bushel for their crops so tripling of yield puts more money in their pockets. And higher yields produce exponentially more food from the same plot of farmland.