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Ag technology key to keeping food shortages at bay - Monsanto

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The oldest cultivated grain may, after more than 10,000 years, regain a bit of the limelight it has lost in the last couple of years.

Not since 1997-98, when it was overtaken by corn, has wheat been the world's most produced cereal, a title it held for millennia.

Now, world farmers produce 40% more corn than wheat.

But if corn's advance has really been fuelled by expanded investment and technological innovations, including genetically modified seed, then wheat could be poised for a bit of the action.

While the European Union, the world's biggest wheat producer, frowns on GM technology, the opportunities for technological advances to "give growers more crop options" remain robust, said Mac Marshall, an economist at Monsanto, tells

'Digital ag'

Mr Marshall puts great stress on "digital ag" – the use of data on best practice to promote more efficient use of existing technologies in the likes of seed, fertilizers and agrichemicals, and so supercharge yields.

Sure, the average US corn yield hit a record 175 bushels per acre last year.

"But we have a couple of places in the country where growers have harvested 500 bushels an acre."

Digital ag "is about narrowing the gap between the average, and what you can conceivably achieve."

"Digital tools can really help growers realise the potential of their farms."

Question of choice

Returning to wheat, UK farmer Rod Smith achieved a world record yield of 16.52 tonnes per hectare in 2015, when the European Union average was 6.29 tonnes per hectare. (The record was taken in February by New Zealand's Eric Watson, with a result of 16.79 tonnes per hectare.)

However, while wheat may remain a mainstay of farmers in Europe, for whom high-yielding GM alternatives are not an option, the popularity of the grain has steadily declined in the US.

US farmers are this year expected to sow a 100+ year low of 46.1m acres of the grain, extending a slide from 75.1m acres in 1996 – while preparing to plant (mainly GM) soybeans in record amounts.

But making wheat more appealing to them, through yield advances enabled through technology such as digital tools, would render the grain a stronger option for inclusion in growers' sowing programmes.

Illinois vs France

That would be a benefit to more than farmers themselves who, given greater choice of high-performing crops, stand to lift their margin prospects.

Indeed, Mr Marshall notes the foregone opportunities for growers without access to premier technological innovations.

"For example, between the 1970s and 1990s, corn yields had a higher annual rate of gain in France than in Illinois," the second-highest US corn-producing state.

"But over the past 20 years, you've seen acceleration in the rate of gain for Illinois but significant deceleration in France.

"You've seen the same trend of increase in Ontario, which is a region in Canada with a similar agronomic profile to France – but with access to GM technology and commensurate increased adoption rates."

'Critical tool'

Denying growers the "critical tool" of GM has meant a "lot of foregone opportunity for the farming sectors in countries without it".

To this point, if France had seen the same rate of gain over the past 20 years as Illinois, its cumulative productivity increase would have been over 1.5bn bushels, according to Monsanto. [With link to HP piece.]

By contrast, in South America, GM technology has "enabled a whole new industry - we now have soybean farming as a vocation".

Without biotech, growers would not have been able to grow soybeans "with the degree of efficiency that has made Argentina and Brazil into powerhouses" in the crop. Since 1996, soybean area in Argentina and Brazil has tripled to nearly 55 million hectares.

'All in it together'

And it is not just growers which stand to profit from technological advance.

More profitable growers mean better prospects for the companies which supply them, such as machinery and fertilizer makers, and indeed seed groups such as Monsanto.

"We are all in the industry better off when those who grow crops are better off," Mr Marshall says.

Furthermore, the consumer gains too, through more certain food supplies which, in being cheaper to produce, come at a lower cost to them too.

"The benefits are felt throughout the whole food chain," he says, flagging a "social responsibility" too to help ensure food production is maximised.

No cause for complacency

The stakes are high, with Mr Marshall frowning on ideas that a build in world grain stocks means that agriculture has demand needs under control.

"This so-called 'oversupply' position is just that – it's a position, not a structural change."

This season, global stocks of food commodities – protein, grain, and oilseeds - are equivalent to about 75 days' supply, he says.

"It does not make much of a change in production to get to the 60 days we saw in 2007-08, when we saw food riots, and food prices skyrocketed - to go from oversupply to a relative shortage."

Helped by largely benign weather, "we are coming off the back of four very, very strong production years for corn, soybeans and wheat.

"But Mother Nature is not always that kind."

Mac Marshall will be speaking on Agrimoney LIVE's Agri-tech Investment day. Fore more information please click here.

By Mike Verdin

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