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By 2050, global agriculture must grow enough food for almost ten billion people while using fewer natural resources. In addition to finding new ways to satisfy this demand by growing enough, farmers and plant scientists are also reimagining what agriculture can accomplish by helping humanity reduce food loss and waste.
Two sides of a similar challenge
Food loss and food waste both represent important opportunities for us to improve how we nourish our growing world, but they aren’t quite the same thing.
Food loss typically refers to food that is spilled, spoiled or damaged during growing, storage, processing or distribution. This, of course, includes crops that are lost on the farm due to environmental stress, inefficient machinery, or limitations of technology.
Food waste describes when food isn’t consumed, often because it is forgotten or discarded. Though food waste occurs at the retail level in local markets and grocery stores, it’s also a result of consumer behavior.
Regardless of how food loss and waste occurs, there are many opportunities to improve how we grow, transport, and consume food. Agricultural experts from crop scientists to logistics engineers are working together to pioneer new approaches to make a global impact across the board.
It starts on the farm
Every seed in a farmer’s field has the potential to grow crops. But if a plant fails, that opportunity is wasted. With challenges like insects, diseases, and climate change, farmers need solutions that are specifically developed to withstand these various pressures to have healthy harvests.
Digital farming technologies such as soil sensors and satellites are helping to preemptively diagnose and treat various threats to crops before they take hold—helping prevent crop loss from the start. In addition, farmers are utilizing genetically modified and hybrid seeds, along with chemical and biological crop protection tools, to protect their crops’ potential.
A better handle on handling
There are many steps in the food journey from the farm to consumers. The first is harvesting, which can damage crops if done improperly, reducing growth capacity or shelf life. Similarly, loss can also occur if there are interruptions or mistakes as foods are washed, peeled, sliced, or boiled. With improved seed technology and precise harvesting equipment, agriculture is making continuous improvements to help more crops make it off the farm.
Farming is also benefiting from re-envisioning the supply chain. Cooling down the temperature in storage silos and in shipping containers helps keep foods fresh and free of pests. Given that roughly 50 percent of fruits, vegetables, roots, and tubers are lost before reaching consumers, these seemingly small improvements are making a massive positive impact.
Additionally, at Bayer, we are addressing food loss well before harvest by applying data analytics and GPS tracking technologies to improve shipping routes to reduce transit times for seed shipments. This not only reduces fuel consumption and carbon emissions but also enables farmers to sow seeds at the perfect moment in the season so they can make the most of their acreage and optimize productivity.
Breeding food waste out of the equation
Bayer is also looking inward to prolong shelf life. Using a combination of traditional breeding techniques, plant breeding innovations (such as genome editing), and biotechnology, our plant scientists are developing new plant varieties that grow and travel better. With greater resistance to pests and diseases, more efficient nutrient absorption, and improved textures, these new varieties better withstand harvest and distribution—so that markets and grocery stores have enough quality food for consumers to choose from. This increased shelf life also gives consumers a larger window in which to enjoy their food before it spoils.
In our efforts to find new ways to farm better, one approach is to help farmers grow better crops. To do so, scientists are researching how to harness the capabilities of genome editing tools such as CRISPR—a technology that can alter the genetic makeup of an organism to improve its characteristics. In agriculture, genome editing has the potential to be used to help plants keep themselves healthy through self-immunization against diseases and increase yield. By giving plants the capacity to more efficiently meet their own needs, farmers are able to spend less time on the tractor, use fewer natural resources, and inputs. Beyond the field, this technology also has the potential to allow us to develop produce that doesn’t brown, bruises less, and resists damage during shipment.
Everyone can help
When it comes to building a better world, the agriculture sector cannot accomplish it alone. Though we are reimagining ways for farming to do more for people and our planet, everyone shares a stake in reducing food waste. Even something as simple as buying produce that doesn’t look entirely perfect can make a big difference in our collective ability to nourish ourselves and take better care of our planet. By not taking more than we need, we leave enough for others and reduce the pressure to store excess food beyond their respective shelf lives. When we work together, these small but significant gestures can—and will—make for a better future for all of us.