Written by Dr. Siang Hee Tan - CropLife Asia Executive Director
Today, farmers around the globe are doing their best to feed a growing population. The world’s population is set to eclipse nine billion inhabitants by the year 2050, and Asia alone is projected to have one billion more people calling it home then. By just 2025, an additional 60 million men, women and children are expected to be living in Southeast Asia.
As the population continues to rise, so too do the demands we’re placing on farmers to feed more people. Factor in the agricultural impact of a warming world, less available water and arable land, more pests and diseases to combat, and the catastrophic affect weather-related events bring to disrupt the fragile balance smallholder farmers depend on – and the task at hand is that much more daunting. All these are increasingly putting a strain on farmers’ ability to feed the world while still preserving the existing resources.
These challenges are particularly pronounced here in Asia, where we have the smallest-sized farms and the largest number of smallholder farmers. It’s estimated that 85% of the world’s 525 million smallholder farmers live and work within our continent – around 100 million alone in ASEAN.
Our smallholder farmers in the region face unique barriers as well: access to technology; extension services and market; lack of organization; informal landholdings; and poor access to credit among them.
This lethal mix takes a toll. The gap between potential yield and actual on-farm yield is a huge one for smallholder farmers across most crops – by most estimates, ASEAN farmers are rarely able to achieve more than 70% of potential yields.
With so much at stake, there’s little question about the issue of sustainable food security’s relevance in our region – and the critically important role of those 100 million smallholder farmers who call Southeast Asia home. The part that’s not as clear is what’s next and how do we enable and empower them to meet the challenges, mitigate the barriers, and realize their full potential?
Through advancements in crop protection and plant biotechnology, the plant science industry is doing its part and providing invaluable tools for the smallholder farmer toolbox. Here in Southeast Asia and around the world, these innovations in technology are better enabling farmers to sustainably increase their yields, use fewer resources, and minimize the impact on our environment.
It’s estimated that 50% of global food production would be lost to pests and disease if not for crop protection products. The protection these advanced pesticides provide isn’t limited to the field – they also help prolong the viable life and prevent post-harvest losses of these crops while in storage as well.
Additionally, biotech crops increased the production of food, feed, and fiber from 1996 to 2013 around the world by 441 million tons. At the same time, biotech crops helped slow the advance of climate change by reducing carbon emissions. In 2013 alone, it’s estimated that biotech crop plantings lowered carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to removing 12.4 million cars from the road for an entire year.
A further benefit of plant science currently being realized is the water conservation it promotes by helping reduce the need for tillage. No-tillage farm techniques, where the soil remains largely or completely undisturbed, aids water conservation by helping build organic matter and ultimately improving the soil’s moisture retention.
With an eye towards 2050, there’s also strong evidence plant science will be an even more critical part of the food security solution. New drought tolerant varieties are expected to increase yields 15-20% in times of severe drought by the year 2050. Meanwhile, 2050 could also bring an increase of 20-30% to staple crop production if wider use of crop protection products is adopted. That would result in a reduction of world hunger by 9% (or reaching almost 100 million people in need).
The challenge of feeding more people with fewer resources and less impact to the environment is one our generation will continue to grapple with for some time to come. The good news is that the game-changing technology and tools of the modern plant science industry present the keys that can help unlock a sustainable solution here in Southeast Asia and around the globe.
Here’s hoping the leaders across our region will embrace the responsible use of this technology, put the keys to good use, and better enable and empower ASEAN’s 100 million smallholder farmers to unlock the solution before the looming crisis becomes a reality. That’s a sustainable agricultural and environmental inheritance to the next generation we can all support.