TO FEED THE FUTURE, WE NEED A FEAST OF FACTS, AND A FAMINE OF FEAR By David B. Schmidt, President & CEO, International Food Information Council & Foundation

Less than three decades from now, in 2041, the United Nations estimates that the population of the world will reach 9 billion people. That’s a lot of mouths to feed, to put it mildly.

So how will we do it? How can a world of limited resources possibly adjust to the food and sustenance needs of its people when their numbers will expand by more than one-quarter, and in such a relatively short period of time? How will we cope with what the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates will be a 60 percent increase in overall food demand?

The answer is the same as it has always been: technology. And with nearly 2 billion additional inhabitants of our planet to be added just one generation hence, that answer is more important, and the stakes are higher, than ever before.

At every step of the journey from farm to fork, technology is helping us produce a safe, abundant, sustainable and nutritious food supply. Precision agriculture, with the aid of GPS satellites, can target individual crop treatments to the smallest plots of soil, which reduces environmental impacts. Advances in livestock production, from climate control to the nutritional qualities of feed, have improved animal health and welfare, and boosted agricultural output. Refrigeration and modern packaging technologies increase the safety of our food, the distance across which it can be transported, and its extended freshness.

Among the most successful and still more promising advances is food biotechnology, which is a range of processes to enhance foods through various breeding and other techniques. At its heart, food biotechnology is the science of employing the tools of modern genetics to enhance beneficial traits of plants, animals, and their food components.

Food biotechnology can help feed our growing planet, while also bringing several additional benefits along the way. Not only do insect-protected and virus-resistant biotech crop varieties produce hardier plants, leading to higher yields, but plants are also being engineered to grow in places where they would not survive before.

The food itself can be more healthful and nutritious, as crops with enhanced nutritional traits make their way to the supermarket. These foods can help to combat chronic diseases by providing more healthful compounds, including higher levels of antioxidants and vitamins, and lower amounts of fats we should limit. Scientists have also begun to target allergy-causing proteins.

Biotech crops can also aid in protecting the environment by producing herbicide-tolerant varieties, thereby decreasing the amount of pesticides used in farming. Decreasing pesticide use can have a positive impact on the health and well-being of wildlife, decrease farmers’ exposure to pesticides, and contribute to a cleaner water supply.

But for any technology to be truly useful, it must first be adopted. Barriers to adoption include fear and misperception, both on the part of users and, ultimately, the consumers who stand to benefit from technological progress. That’s why for those who care about the world’s capacity to feed the future, communication and education are critical.

Some opponents would synonymize terms such as “biotechnology” or “genetic engineering” with “unnatural.” But nothing could be farther from the truth. Biotechnology is merely a refinement on processes that already occur in nature, and a step beyond traditional methods of crossbreeding that have been used to genetically enhance agricultural products for centuries.

At the International Food Information Council (IFIC), we have learned that consumers are not predisposed to fear and that when they understand food biotechnology and its benefits, they respond positively. According to the 2012 IFIC survey “Consumer Perceptions of Food Technology & Sustainability,” respondents, when given a basic definition of food biotechnology, react favorably by a ratio of almost two to one (38 percent to 20 percent). By a margin of 35 percent to 20 percent, they expect biotechnology will provide benefits for them or their families within the next five years.

In terms of foods produced through biotechnology that consumers would be likely to purchase based on specific attributes:

  • 77 percent would purchase foods that required fewer pesticide applications;
  • 69 percent would purchase foods with better nutritional qualities;
  • 71 percent would purchase foods that provided more healthful fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids; and
  • 68 percent would purchase foods with less saturated fat.

Feeding the future will rely on technology, but equally important is a world with access to accurate, science-based information about new and emerging technologies.

That’s why just this past April, the IFIC Foundation released the third edition of “Food Biotechnology: A Communicator’s Guide to Increasing Understanding,” which is available at http://www.foodinsight.org/foodbioguide.aspx. Intended for use by leaders and other communicators in the food, agricultural, nutrition and health communities, the guide offers the latest science and consumer-friendly information in a variety of accessible formats, targeted to different audiences.

Consumers of both today and tomorrow need a climate where fact trumps fear, where credible information is easily attainable, and where evidence outweighs emotion. Only such a climate will be conducive to continued progress across a whole host of technologies that are vital to sustainably produce the safest possible food supply, in the amounts and with the nutritional attributes we need, and in the ways that least impact the environment.

The 9 billion people who will soon occupy our planet are counting on nothing less.

This article was originally published in Diplomatic Courier's special edition, the 2013 Global Action Report, “Food Health, and Prosperity.”   Republished with permission.