Seven billion is a lot of people to feed, but it is also the reality of our world population right now. And with high birth rates continuing in many developing nations, we’ll need to feed more than 9 billion people by 20501. While food security becomes an increasing challenge, farmers have a shrinking amount of land on which they can plant and harvest crops.
The good news is that there are new technologies to help farmers grow more food on their existing land and increase food security. For example, production of major crops has more than tripled since 1960. The yields for rice, a staple that feeds almost half of humanity2, have more than doubled, and yields for wheat have increased nearly 160 percent3. It’s through innovations in plant science that farmers are able to realize this improved yield to help feed a hungry, growing world.
Crop protection and plant biotechnology helps farmers grow more food on less land by protecting crops from huge losses to pests and diseases, and raising yields per hectare. With farming tools and practices used in the 1980s, farmers could produce 1.8 tonnes of food on one hectare – that’s a piece of land about the size of a rugby field4. Thirty years later, they can produce 2.5 tonnes on the same amount of land5.
Our access to fresh, nutritious produce also relies on crop protection. A U.S. study estimated that without fungicides, which protect plants from disease, yields of most fruit and vegetables would fall by 50-90 percent.
And the threat doesn’t stop once it leaves the field – bugs, molds, and rodents can all harm a crop in storage. Pesticides can prolong the viable life of the produce and prevent post-harvest losses from pests and diseases. This helps to ensure a reliable and affordable supply of food.
Biotechnology has also played a significant role over the past 15 years to increase food production. Through biotechnology, scientists can give plants new beneficial traits such as disease and pest resistance, or tolerance to drought. Between 1996 and 2009, farmers produced an additional 358 million tonnes of food and fiber thanks to biotech crops6.
New innovations in plant science will also help farmers continue to improve their yields in the future as our population grows and climate change impacts become pronounced. For farmers in breadbasket areas of the United States, China and East Africa, new drought tolerant varieties are expected to increase yields 15-20% in times of severe drought by year 2050. Products in the plant biotechnology pipeline such as nitrogen-use efficient crops are anticipated to nearly double maize yields in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America when combined with irrigation. And wider use of crop protection products could not only increase staple crop production 20-30% in 2050 but can reduce global hunger by 9%, or nearly 100 million people7.