By Robert Fraley
Chief Technology Officer
I was invigorated after speaking with more than 500 students and educators at Iowa State University last evening at the annual Norman Borlaug Lecture. It was an opportunity for my fellow World Food Prize laureates and me to share some thoughts on the future of innovation in agriculture, but just as much a chance to see and hear what these students see as future needs and research opportunities.
Today’s students are, after all, the people who will be living with 2.4 billion more people than we share the planet with today. They’ll be developing the solutions that will mitigate the impact of climate change, and they’ll be fighting to preserve our natural resources. The world in 2050 will be their reality; it will be up to them to determine whether humanity thrives in an environment that is much different than it is today, or to cope with the consequences.
To see the students’ enthusiasm about addressing the challenges ahead is reassuring. We’re in good hands, for sure. We need to ensure that we’re equipping those hands with a full slate of tools to help them feed a growing planet, including breeding, biotechnology, information technology, transportation and storage.
During the lecture, I shared with the students my thoughts on how innovation in each of these areas will combine to help us grow more healthy food from the same amount of farmland. We’ve made great advances over the past several decades, but we’re also only scratching the surface of what is possible. The next generation will take us there.
Earlier in my career, my friend and hero Norm shared with me what we’ve come to call his “three Normanisms.” These simple truths have guided me throughout my career.
- Hunger never sleeps, and farmers will always need new tools to improve yields and feed the planet.
- Helping farmers helps alleviate poverty, because they comprise the bulk of the rural poor.
- There will always be opposition to your work – someone will always fight change.
Norm was a master of delivering these truths in a way that provides equal parts inspiration and warning. He was also absolutely right with each of his Normanisms.
As we stand today, I think we’ve done a very good job in following Norm’s first two simple truths. With biotechnology and advanced breeding techniques, we’re delivering a wide range of safe and effective new tools for farmers. We’re making farming easier, improving yields and reducing the need for insecticides and weed control chemicals. And more than 90 percent of the 17.3 million farmers who plant GMO products are small-hold farmers in developing countries, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).
That’s exciting progress, and it’s making a real difference in food security and environmental protection today.
We need to focus more energy around the third Normanism, and tomorrow’s scientists will be well-served by keeping in mind that change does not come without initial fear and opposition. The more information we’re able to share, the faster most people will move from concern to understanding and acceptance of new innovations.
This week’s activities, including the Norman Borlaug Lecture at ISU and the upcoming Borlaug Dialogue, are great opportunities for us not only to advance the science that supports agriculture, but to share information and research that will help address people’s concerns and their opposition.
Photograph of Memorial Union at Iowa State University via Iowa State University Foundation.