Commodity Corner

Views on commodities and energy

from Jasmin Melvin:

Modern marvels boost food output, or would if countries used them

It may have been preaching to the converted but the world's largest agrochemicals company came to the 2009 Outlook Forum to hold forth on the benefits of technology for farmers, and not just on genetially modified technologies.
    
Michael Mack, CEO of Zurich-based Syngenta International AG told attendees that advanced technologies and a little education will be necessary to feed the world, but maintained such innovations aren't years or even decades away -- they're already here.
   
More than 850 million people face starvation each day under current conditions, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, yet many nations do not fully utilize existing technologies to maximize their harvests.
    
"We can realize significant yield potential in the next 10 years by simply deploying existing technology across land that is currently under cultivation," Mack said.    
 
Mack noted that places such as Russia and Ukraine, once considered the breadbasket of Europe, farm only 10 percent of their land efficiently, while Asia could boost its productivity by 20 percent within seven to 10 years by adopting modern farming methods.
 
Simply put, technology would allow us to do more with less, a phenomenon that will become even more significant as the world's population grows by an expected 2 billion people by 2030.
    
"This means that there are not only more mouths to feed but they will all be demanding a bigger and better diet," Mack said, which will require a doubling of feed and food production.
    
Technologies as simple as fertilizers and pesticides boost crop yields but costs and lack of  education on their use often result in them being left out of farming in developing countries.
    
The International Plant Nutrition Institute, a not-for-profit agronomic education and research group, says on its Web site that "somewhere between 30 to 50 percent of crop yield in the U.S. is attributable to nutrient inputs."
    
And Mack noted, "It's a fact without current crop protection products there would be 40 percent less food available in the world."
    
Syngenta has seen sales of its crop protection products increase in recent years.
    
Selective herbicides, which target specific weeds and are Syngenta's most profitabe crop protection product, saw sales increase by 8 percent to $2 billion for the company in 2007. 
     
Mack also spoke about more controversial technologies, like genetically modified seeds, which are strongly opposed by some environmental groups. He praised American policy and regulations on GMO crops and expressed hope that other countries would follow.    

"If we embrace science, we can have a future of bounty," Mack said.

For more Reuters coverage of the U.S. Agriculture Department's 2009 Outlook Forum, click here.

Photo credit: Reuters/Christian Hartmann (Syngenta CEO Michael Mack during an interview with Reuters at Syngenta's headquarters); Reuters/Beawiharta (A farmer sprays pesticide on a rice field in Indonesia)