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The agriculture industry needs to do a better job of educating the public about the challenges of feeding a growing population and the necessity of using both traditional methods and new technology to achieve sustainable food production.
Ag industry companies are aggressive about aricultural research, but government investment in public institutions is a good investment, says Monsanto President and COO Brett Begemann.
Begemann said another critical issue, and one that has been rife with misunderstanding, is declining populations of pollinators, especially honeybees. “It is a critical topic,” he said. “Agriculture pollinators are crucial to what we are. We rely on them to produce food.”
Pesticides, even biotechnology, have been targeted as main causes of bee and other pollinator declines. “But the issue is more complex than that,” Begemann said. “A more damaging agent is the varroa mite, a pest that weakens honey bees and makes them more vulnerable to other stresses.”
He said Monsanto recently bought a company, Beeologics, to enhance research efforts in protecting bees and pollinators. “We are working diligently on this issue. Efforts will involve all stakeholders. It’s not a case of them versus us, but we are learning from each other to develop a more sustainable system.”
He said a biological control agent to target the varroa mite also shows promise. Biological development, in fact, offers a new area of concentration for Monsanto and includes the possibility of creating agents that would turn herbicide resistant weeds into susceptible targets again.
He told the Friday Group that Monsanto’s role in providing food and fiber to the world is three-fold: “Produce more; conserve more; and improve lives,” and to double key crop yields by 2030.
Declining funding of public institution agriculture research is another concern. “Government funding for agriculture research has declined significantly over the last few years in the United States and around the world. Independent companies are spending aggressively,” he said. But public institutions play vital roles in food production research. “It would be hard to argue against investing money in agriculture. We ought to feed everybody and we ought to feed them well,” he said. Research will be necessary to accomplish that.
Begemann said the agriculture industry has made significant strides over the past few decades with better, more productive varieties, better production systems that use water more efficiently and with practices that conserve soil by reducing tillage. Technology has reduced labor and energy costs and allowed farmers to do more with fewer resources.
But that’s not enough to provide for future needs.
“We have to produce affordable, safe, nutritious food,” he said. “And we have to do it sustainably.”