Solving the food crisis?

An editorial in the Toronto Star today made me stop and think once again about the disconnect between those of us in agriculture and those who aren’t. According to the Star editorial, one of the solutions to the global food crisis is for rich nations like Canada to produce more food.

On the surface, that seems simple enough. But let’s consider some simple truths:

  • Fewer farmers. According to Statistics Canada and the most recent census, the number of farms declined by seven per cent in the last five years, leaving 17,550 fewer farms and 19,140 fewer farmers than in the previous census in 2001.
  • Less farm land. Growing urbanization is eating up prime farmland. It is often said that some of the best farmland in Ontario can be found under the concrete and asphalt of the GTA.
  • More severe weather patterns. Climate change is bringing about more extreme temperature swings and more severe weather than we’re used to. Things like late cold temperatures, drought, heat or heavy rains can damage crops or even stop them from growing altogether.
  • High cost, high risk. Costs for things like fuel, seeds, fertilizer and equipment have skyrocketed in recent years but prices farmers get for their products haven’t kept pace.
  • Low pay, hard work. Farming is a tough business. The hours are long, the work is hard and depending on any number of factors beyond a farmer’s control, the income can be low.
  • Burgeoning global population. The world’s population is growing faster than ever before – we were at 6.6 billion in 2007 and are predicted to hit 9.3 billion by 2050, according to the Population Reference Bureau.

For our farmers to meet this challenge of producing more food, they’ll need access to all the new technologies and tools they can get. This includes things that many people in rich countries like Canada want banned: seeds that are genetically modified to withstand heat, pests and drought, and pesticides that help crops survive and grow.

We can’t have it both ways.

That sentiment was shared by Martin Taylor, Chairman of the Board of Syngenta, at a dinner and discussion I attended last night in Guelph. According to Taylor, existing and improving technologies can solve the food crisis and leave enough crops left over for biofuels – but only if they’re allowed to develop.

“The animosity and hostility towards agricultural technology of any kind is astonishing,” he says. “But how do we feed the world without technology?”

If we want to continue to feed more and more people with fewer farmers, less land and tougher growing conditions, we need to let agriculture get on with the job of doing so.

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