Panel Affirms the Power of Plant Technology

Story by Lisa Henderson

Dr. Noel Vietmeyer speaks on World Food Day at Kansas State about the importance of food security.

Dr. Noel Vietmeyer speaks on World Food Day at Kansas State about the importance of food security.

Increasing awareness, advancing technology for food security and to stimulate some thinking on world hunger were the goals of the panel discussion on “Meeting World Food Needs: Challenges and Opportunities” at Kansas State University Oct. 16 . The panel was assembled in recognition of the 32nd Annual World Food Day, a celebration founded by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 1979.

The panel consisted of four noted speakers including Noel Vietmeyer, Ph.D., scientist and biographer of Norman Borlaug, a plant scientist whose improvements in wheat varieties and crop management in the late 20th century is said to have saved one billion lives. Also on the panel were April Mason, Ph.D., Provost and Senior Vice President at Kansas State University, Gerad Middendorf, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work, and P.V. Vara Prasad, Ph.D., Associate Professor in Crop Ecophysiology.

The discussion focused around the need to increase the quality and quantity of food production to meet the rising population. By the year 2050 food production will need to double and the panel had a general consensus on how to get there. First, they agreed advanced plant breeding and technology to improve genetics should be used. Prasad says in past years to increase food production the United States has looked to genetics, improved crop management practices, increasing crop intensity and the use of more land for farming. Now, he says, America has already utilized the available land for plant production and water sources are becoming more scarce every year, which suggests America must focus on minimizing the yield gap between potential crop yields and actual yields. Decreasing the food thrown away every year is another way we can increase our food supply.

Second, we must address the problem of distribution. While there is access to food in the majority of the US, it is not always nutritious or economically attainable. Mason believes that food security means access at all times to an acceptable food supply in an acceptable manner. This seems an easy enough idea but it is very difficult to implement in areas with little to no transportation to a grocery store and also not everyone has the means to be able to buy fresh produce to feed their family.

“Go into a store and look at the prices of fresh produce and then compare it with its shelf life stored properly and improperly. For some it is not economically possible to provide fresh produce to their families,” Mason says.

Vietmeyer focused his plan to increase food supply around the subject of the majority of his research – underutilized plants. In 1975 Vietmeyer published a book about 18 underexploited plants that are “awaiting the blessings of science” to increase their profitability. Since the publishing of his findings, Vietmeyer has seen the increase in availability of some of these plants including Quinoa and Jojoba vegetable oil.

“I have seen some of these products arise from a dream to reality,” says Vietmeyer.

The final piece to the puzzle the panel settled on is education for consumers. Consumers need to understand we use genetic modification as a tool. To gain consumer acceptance of this idea we need to inform them not lobby them towards agreeing or disagreeing with GMOs. Mason says consumers shouldn’t be afraid of a label. For instance, milk pasteurization was an abstract idea when it was first introduced but now it is the industry norm. Vietmeyer believes we need to get away from the label of ‘GMO’ because whether we like it or not GMOs are going to be the basis of modern civilization.

“Three hundred million Americans have been consuming gene altered corn for over 20 years and over one billion in China have consumed it in the past 10 years. There has been no downside of these plants that has been pinpointed to gene transfer,” says Vietmeyer.

After his visit to Kansas State, Vietmeyer traveled to Des Moines, Iowa, to take part in the dedication of the Dr. Norman E. Borlaug Hall of Laureates, on the 25th anniversary of the World Food Prize, an award created by Borlaug. Although Borlaug may not be well known outside of agriculture, he will be honored on March 25, 2014, with a bronze statue to be housed in Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. Borlaug will be the only scientist honored with a Capitol Hill statue and it will be dedicated on the centennial of his birth.