Awareness and new technologies are transforming the way we feed the world’s growing population affordably while preserving the planet
“The most exciting development of recent years in the field of food security is awareness,” says Jai Shroff, CEO of UPL, an Indian crops solution company with presence in 124 countries. “Awareness is at least 60 percent of victory. Sustainable agriculture is something we’ve been focused on since the 1970s, and finally the whole world is talking about it! It’s very satisfying to see multilateral organisations like the United Nations and World Bank setting sustainability goals and taking action towards them.” He’s confident that despite the immense challenges that still lie ahead, “the world will look very different in 15 years” in terms of global nutrition.
“An estimated 25percent reduction in wasted food could feed 800 million people. The wasted food emits 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases, contributing to global warming and climate change. It is a huge challenge.” To achieve international Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs), Shroff says the whole world needs to work together. He believes the first key step is to introduce the technologies currently in use in developed countries to less developed nations. The next step is to develop more technologies.
Reducing water consumption, maximising the productivity of each acre of available agricultural land, introducing technology at cost-effective prices, and making nutritious food affordable to everyone, are all crucial to achieving SDGs, says Shroff.
“The world needs a balanced diet - the privileged among us can have a blood test and see where we’re deficient, but that’s not available to the poorest of the poor, who are often the world’s small farmers. Fruit and vegetables and nutritious food are not only for the elite.
“Over the decades, we’ve developed many technologies for small farmers and food-handling companies to reduce post-harvest losses and give food a longer, healthy shelf life. Grains can be stocked for around two years; fruit and vegetables are key to improving diet and need to be disinfected so that there’s no disease present as they go into storage & distribution system.”
Any business needs to be profitable, says Shroff: “If food prices go down, who pays? The small farmers supplying the urban environments, who can’t afford to. We work with about 300,000 small farmers in the north of India to help them reduce their costs by sharing technologies the individual farmers couldn’t afford, like weather predictions and reduced use of chemicals.” The same farmers have a percentage of their land set aside for a few of their own fruit trees or cows, whose produce they can consume and share as they wish, separate from their main selling crops like rice.
Global health and business imperatives go hand in hand with preserving the planet, says Shroff: “I’m a big environmentalist. The world’s forests need to be preserved, they are true Nature at its best. For the past 10 years, we’ve focused intensively on reducing the environmental impact of agriculture, through both new technologies and simple measures such as helping small farmers understand about growing the right crop in the right place. Sunflower and oil seed crops will grow close to the desert, but sugar is a big consumer of water.” Our water optimising technology (Zeba) that improve irrigation are providing significant savings for farmers, both by reducing water consumption, and by storing water in the ground to keep crops alive during periods of drought.
“Zeba also improves germination,” explains Shroff, “which helps farmers avoid re-seeding. We’ve achieved 30 percent water reduction for farmers of irrigated crops, and even in field and root crops like cotton and potatoes.“ Water can also leach and contaminate subsoil water with fertilisers: our technology reduces this leaching by 75-80 percent, and farmers don’t have to re-apply fertilisers after heavy rain.” The whole world will see huge progress in the environmental aspects of agriculture over coming years, says Shroff. “ At UPL we’re very well-positioned to be part of that drive because sustainability has been part of our DNA since my father set up the business in 1969. We work with everyone from local village chiefs to big business and governments, and we’re very excited that the world’s organisations are on the same mission.”