November 21, 2018

Getting to a Bountiful Thanksgiving in 2050

By Sung Lee

Thanksgiving is upon us and families will come together to give thanks and share a meal that connects people all across America. And while we celebrate this American tradition here at home, it’s important to remember the millions around the world who don’t know where they will find their next meal. In fact, as the global population continues to grow rapidly, there will be 10 billion people to feed by the time we mark Thanksgiving in 2050.

To achieve this goal, the world will need to increase agricultural productivity and ensure global food systems are more economically robust and environmentally sustainable.

Last month at the annual World Food Prize Symposium in Iowa, I heard about a big shift that could have a profound impact on global food systems – the consolidation of the “Big Six” agricultural corporations that drive more than 60 percent of the global market for seeds and fertilizers. Alongside nearly 1,000 international leaders, government officials, farmers, and private sector executives, the leaders of several of these newly merged companies – Bayer, Corteva Agriscience, and Syngenta – showcased their plans to meet the growing demands on global food systems by empowering smallholder farmers in developing countries where the majority of the world’s hungry people live.

Businesses Must be Part of The Solution to End Hunger

At the World Food Prize, James Collins, future CEO of Corteva Agriscience, said, “We in the [agriculture] industry have the responsibility to move these smallholder farmers into more sustainable and prosperous farmers,” noting that they are most susceptible to everything from weather to pests, to diseases and inadequate infrastructure.

Indeed, there are 1.5 billion smallholder farmers in the world and they are responsible for generating 80 percent of food production in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. They are the key to ending global hunger and represent an enormous market for agribusinesses with the potential to unlock $2.3 trillion of annual private sector opportunities, if the global Sustainable Development Goals on food security were met. To help smallholder farmers become commercially successful, Simon Winter, Executive Director of Syngenta Foundation, said that Syngenta will prioritize “getting innovative technologies into the hands of smallholders… so they can improve their food security, their income, and their resilience.”

Yet with global agricultural productivity not accelerating fast enough to meet the growing food demand, harnessing the skills and expertise of the private sector will be vital to meeting food security challenges in an increasingly volatile and resource-constrained world – particularly with the number of hungry people increasing for the first time in more than 15 years to 821 million in 2017.

U.S. Leadership with Businesses for Impact

But to help feed the world sustainably, businesses need “to partner with others to accelerate the pace of innovation,” according to Liam Condon, President of Bayer Crop Science – and it will require the U.S. government’s sustained commitment to global food security as well.

Dovetailing the private sector’s commitments to scale up partnerships, the U.S. government has increased its efforts to catalyze public and private investments to empower smallholder farmers. “Private enterprise is the single most powerful force for lifting lives, strengthening communities, and accelerating that self-reliance,” said USAID Administrator Mark Green at the Indo-Pacific Forum over the summer.

Through programs like Feed the Future – which was recently reauthorized by Congress and signed by the president for another 5 years with strong bipartisan support – the U.S. has leveraged more than $830 million in direct private sector investments since 2011, helping to link farmers to markets and fueling local economic growth to generate $10.5 billion in sales. As one example, USAID’s partnership with Corteva Agriscience, then-DuPont Pioneer, helped 250,000 Ethiopian farmers triple their yields and produce enough food to weather El Niño in 2016 without needing emergency food assistance.

Getting to 2050

While some have raised concerns about the impact of these mergers on food prices and biodiversity, strong commitments to empower smallholder farmers can be a force to build more vibrant and prosperous farming communities. With the U.S. expanding the way it partners with the private sector to catalyze investments and empower smallholder farmers, America is helping to set countries on the path to self-reliance and meeting the needs of a growing global population – something we can all be thankful for this Thanksgiving.