When people think about the benefits of science to agriculture, they often think about American dematerialization. Farmers are producing far more food on far less land with far less ecological footprint than dreamed about 30 years ago.
But it isn't just more food at reasonable costs, which is better for everyone. In an interview before his keynote address at the meeting of the American Chemical Society, Daniel Kittle, Ph.D., vice-president for research and development at Dow AgroSciences, cited the development of healthier foods as one part of the role science has played in supporting the growth of civilization through advances in agricultural technology. While people in America are fatter, that is a luxury once only afforded the rich. Now, the diets of people in North America shed almost 1.5 billion pounds of unhealthy saturated and trans fat over the last six years thanks to a new phase in an ongoing agricultural revolution. A revolution that needs to continue if we are to feed a global population that is rising from 7 billion today to a projected 9 billion by 2050. I
"We are making progress on those goals, including some major advances that may not be widely known," Kittle said. "For example, we've used advanced breeding to produce canola, soybean and sunflower plants that are lower in saturated fats, the bad fats linked to heart disease, and high in the healthier monounsaturated fats. These plants do not have trans fats, so oils made from them, such as our Omega-9 Oils, are trans-fat free. Through this technology and the sale of these oils to restaurants and food manufacturers, we have removed more than a billion and a half pounds of those bad fats from the North American diet since 2006. Reduced saturated fats, increased amounts of healthful omega-9 fats and the elimination of trans fats should translate to lower cholesterol levels and a reduced risk of developing heart disease and diabetes, which already affect millions of Americans."
Another challenge involves meeting the expectations of consumers in countries like the People's Republic of China, who are becoming more prosperous and entering the middle class, Kittle said. Millions of people are doing so, and it has profound implications for agriculture in the 21st century.
"One of the expectations from a growing middle class is a diet that includes more protein," Kittle explained. "It takes about 15 pounds of feed to make 1 pound of beef, 6 pounds for a pound of pork, and 5 pounds of feed for 1 pound of chicken. It means that grain production will have to increase significantly. In addition, a larger middle class typically means migration to the cities, with fewer people in rural areas left to grow crops, and less land to do it on as more land is converted to urban and industrial uses."
Kittle expressed confidence that scientists and farmers working together will meet those challenges in the years ahead, as they have in the past. He cited, for instance, progress in developing crops with higher yields and greater resistance to pests and drought.
He pointed out that industry-wide efforts have increased crop productivity by 20 to 50 percent, which keeps food costs down and provides jobs. In addition, integrated pest management programs help decrease energy consumption and environmental impact by using the right products at the right times to reduce pest populations and minimize the impact on other insects and animals.
"Scholars have predicted for centuries that the earth will reach a tipping point where population growth will outstrip our ability to sustain ourselves. But far from a story of doom and gloom, the agrichemical story is one of innovation, adaptation and determination," Kittle said. "We have a huge challenge ahead of us, and our scientists are prepared to meet it."