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Of Waste and Want

Meeting the looming global food crisis is the issue at hand as CALS co-hosts the 2014 North Carolina Agriculture and Biotechnology Summit.

The world population is projected to reach 9.5 billion by 2050. Between now and then, we will need to produce more food than we have in the previous 10,000 years.

How will we feed a rapidly growing and changing world population? How will we enhance technologies sufficiently enough – somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 to 100 percent – to double the food supply in just 35 years? Not to mention doing it with less land, a decreasing water supply and new pests and diseases that plague both plant and animal production.

These astonishing statistics – and the myriad questions they spawn – were the bases of an intensive two-day conference hosted by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at NC State University and the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

Nearly 500 participants convened at the McKimmon Conference Center in Raleigh on Nov. 18 and 19 for the 2014 North Carolina Agriculture and Biotechnology Summit.

Rebecca Boston and other summit participants
Dr. Rebecca Boston of CALS’ Department of Plant and Microbial Biology has a question for one of the summit speakers.

“The summit brought together the very best scientists and food, agricultural and life sciences experts from North Carolina and around the world to discuss the issues, technologies and obstacles facing global food production,” said CALS Dean Richard Linton. “This event was a tremendous success, and I believe it will generate even more innovation and collaboration among industry, government and academia to help solve the most critical grand global challenge.”

In his opening keynote speech on the first day of the summit, Dr. Steve Savage, agricultural technology consultant of Savage and Associates, said, “There is no single technology that will feed the world. What will feed the world are farmers.”

This sentiment resonated throughout the two-day event, from its first mention Tuesday morning to closing remarks delivered that Wednesday afternoon by former N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt.

“This is the work we do in the college every single day,” Linton said. “We’re helping farmers become more productive, improving the quality of food and exploring ways to grow it faster, safer, more sustainably and resistant to diseases, pests and drought.”

Following Savage’s presentation on day one was a lively panel discussion on GMO labeling, during which Washington Post reporter Tamar Haspel deftly moderated a wide-ranging conversation among those on both sides of the issue.

Sonny Ramaswamy at the podium.
Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, NIFA director, describes feeding the world as “the mother of all wicked problems.”

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), delivered an eye-opening keynote address during lunch on day one: “Can Plants Do Everything?”

According to Ramaswamy, the answer is a resounding, “Yes.”

“Plants can do a lot for food security,” he said. “The cornucopia of chemistries that plants can make is mind-boggling.” He later exclaimed as he held up his smart phone, “Even our phones depend on plants.”

He described feeding the world as the “mother of all wicked problems” and implored the audience to consider the “low-hanging fruit” that should be addressed immediately to help alleviate global food shortages: Stop throwing away so much food.

“In the developed world, almost half of food is lost at the dinner table,” Ramaswamy said. “In the United States, we’re wasting 131 billion pounds of food per year, which equals about 1,200 calories per person per day. Another consequence of this food waste is the loss of one quadrillion liters of water per year worldwide.”

In another startling statistic, Ramaswamy said that a billion people across the world go to bed hungry each night, while another billion deal with obesity-related health issues like high blood pressure and heart disease.

Drs. Steve Shafer and Cecilia Chi-Ham, seated.
Panelists Dr. Steve Shafer and Dr. Cecilia Chi-Ham discuss the food/technology dilemma.

After Ramaswamy’s talk, the afternoon featured two panel discussions: “Technology Solutions for our Future” and “Do We Have a Food/Technology Dilemma?” Late afternoon keynote addresses by Dr. Todd Armstrong of Elanco and Jay Byrne of v-Fluence Interactive focused on informing and educating the public about the important role of biotechnology in feeding the world.

A special “Dinner Dialogues” session bridged the summit’s two days by engaging industry leaders in critical conversations that addressed the grand challenge of feeding the world. NC State Provost Warwick Arden moderated a conversation among Jim Blome, president and CEO of Bayer CropScience; Dr. Wayne Holden, president and CEO of RTI International; and Nevin McDougall, senior vice president with BASF Corp. (See Dean’s Page.)

“Having these industry leaders together at the same table for such a thoughtful and thought-provoking conversation was significant,” Linton said. “I think that one of the summit’s biggest successes was serving as a springboard for more conversations like this one. I really believe that we have the leadership in North Carolina to be game-changers.”

Steve Troxler, commissioner of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, kicked off the summit’s second day.

“We’re about partnerships in North Carolina, and I’m proud of our network,” Troxler said. And during remarks about why food is a serious global security issue, Troxler made perhaps one of the summit’s most tweeted statements: “Hungry people are mean people.”

Joel Bourne Jr. speaks.
National Geographic writer Joel Bourne Jr. , a CALS alumnus, speaks of “The End of Plenty” and describes the need for a dramatic increase in production to meet future demand.

Joel Bourne Jr., CALS agronomy graduate and contributing writer for National Geographic, followed Troxler with a compelling presentation, “The End of Plenty,” in which he explored food insecurity and the potential path for a “greener revolution” to stave off a continual food crisis in much of the world.

“Three million children die every year of malnutrition,” Bourne said. “It’s the primary underlying cause of the global burden of disease. And one billion people lack access to clean water.”

Citing Norman Bourlag’s work to bring about an astounding “green revolution” in the 1960s which is credited with saving more than a billion people worldwide from starvation, Bourne said, “A dramatic increase in production is required to meet population demand by 2050. We need another green revolution, and we need it in half the time.”

Bourne suggested a number of potential solutions, including aquaculture, which in some parts of the world is spawning a “blue revolution” of undersea farming; desalinating ocean water; treating municipal wastewater; making biofuels out of non-food crops like algae and switchgrass; and educating girls in developing countries on family planning, to reduce fertility rates.
“We could go a long way in easing the looming food crisis,” Bourne said. “It’s time to get started.”

Following Bourne’s talk was a multimedia session, “Innovation in Action,” that spotlighted a dozen of the college’s researchers and the important work they’re doing to address the grand challenge of feeding the world.

Dr. MeeCee Baker, president and CEO of the agricultural public affairs firm Versant Strategies, delivered a lunchtime keynote address that rallied summit participants to be advocates for agriculture and the life sciences.

“We are confronting gross misunderstandings of agriculture,” she said. “Food fears and other misinformation about agriculture are fueled by the media, especially social media.”

Each day, Baker said, “Be an advocate for agriculture. Keep the conversation moving along.” She advised the audience to try weekly to “educate someone, deliberately. There are many things we can do to make a difference.” And at least once a month, Baker suggested, set an appointment with an elected official.

“Advocate, educate, cultivate. Share your science,” she said. “It’s not about being a democrat or republican. It is about agriculture and biotechnology. We’ve got a world to feed.

“As Paul Harvey said, ‘God made a farmer.’ It’s up to everyone here today to tell ‘the rest of that story.’”

Also during lunch that day, two sets of awards were presented: the Innovation Fair Awards and the CALS Outstanding Research Awards.

The Innovation Fair, a marketplace of ideas where CALS scientists and their interdisciplinary collaborators showcased ongoing and emerging scientific research, took place throughout the summit’s second day. Dr. Keith Harris, assistant professor of food science, won first place in the Innovation Fair Awards competition. Dr. Linda Robles and Dr. Kamy Singer, both postdoctoral research associates in plant and microbial biology, took second and third place, respectively.

The CALS Outstanding Research Awards winners, Dr. Anna Stepanova, assistant professor, and graduate student Alice Broadhead, both of the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, were determined by online voting on YouTube videos created and submitted by the candidates. This competition celebrated the ingenuity and innovation of the college’s scientists and awarded flexible funding to help support their research programs.

6 panelists
CALS alumnus and farmer Bo Stone (center), with fellow panelists, considers the issue of food-product GMO labeling.

After lunch, a series of keynote addresses focused on what can be done at the local, national and international levels to advance food production, security and sustainability. Speakers were Beth Foster, farmer and secretary/treasurer of the Blackland Farm Managers Association; Sen. Brent Jackson (NC-10); Richard McKellogg, director of produce and floral merchandising for Lowe’s Foods; and Larry Wooten, president of the N.C. Farm Bureau Federation.

In the final session of the summit, “The Time is Now: Action Planning to Shape the Future of Food,” 35 facilitators representing state agencies, non-profit organizations, private businesses, Cooperative Extension and Industrial Extension led small-group discussions about how to seize new opportunities while meeting the challenges presented throughout the summit.

Outcomes from the facilitated sessions will be used by action teams to be convened in the year ahead. This session was spearheaded by Dr. Mary Lou Addor of Cooperative Extension and Larry Roberts of the Roberts Business Group.

Gov. Hunt at the podium, reaching out.
Former N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt delivers a call to action.

Who better to wrap up the summit than former N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt, one of the earliest advocates for biotechnology in North Carolina? Hunt charged the audience to make a difference in the world.

“With advances in agriculture and biotechnology, we can have more food to feed people who are hungry,” he said. “We can create a better world, and we should.”

Reflecting on the event, Linton said he believes North Carolina is uniquely positioned to be a global leader in agriculture and biotechnology.

“The time is now,” he said. “We are positioned to find answers to the big questions surrounding world food production. And this summit put us one step closer.”

– Suzanne Stanard