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Invest in ‘customised agriculture’ to meet future ag demand sustainably

The agriculture sector is in the middle of a quiet transformation and the private sector should be at its helm, argues Chuck Magro, CEO of fertiliser company Agrium, in the wake of a UN meeting to create a new set of Sustainable Development Goals.

Chuck Magro is the president and CEO of Agrium. He is also on the Board of the International Fertiliser Industry Association.

This past week, I attended United Nations meetings in New York to discuss agriculture’s role in the creation of a new set of Sustainable Development Goals. These proposed goals are meant to shape the next 15 years of global policy, donor funding, and investment into critical sectors to address the world’s increasingly interconnected challenges.

One of these goals calls specifically to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”, through a doubling of smallholder productivity and the introduction of more sustainable and resilient agricultural practices – all by the year 2030.

With an estimated 805 million people in the world still going to bed hungry, and an increasingly variable climate that will undoubtedly be another challenge to our future food supply, the need for urgent action is clear. So how should our sector respond if we are to meet these lofty targets together?

Embracing a new era: customised agriculture

Still invisible to many, the agricultural sector is already in the midst of a quiet transformation, which many of us believe holds the key to addressing future demand more sustainably.

Just as other sectors are harnessing technology to offer their customers a more individualised service – from customised healthcare provision to personalised consumer goods – so too is this trend opening up a new era for agricultural production.

For instance, farmers can now use sophisticated GPS technology on their tractors and combines to give them very detailed information about their soil on their farm. They can use this information to determine much more precisely when and what kinds of seed to plant, how much water is needed, and also the precise amount and correct source of nutrients required throughout their farm for optimal production. In the fertiliser industry, this practice is better known as the four R’s: delivering the right nutrients, at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place. To both maximise production and to keep agriculture’s environmental footprint to a minimum, these types of innovation are going to be crucial in the coming years.

Similar technologies are using satellites to map weather systems and whole landscapes from above. This unlocks a wealth of possibilities – from offering smallholder farmers index-based insurance programs to hedge risks; calculating soils’ carbon sequestration potential as a means of improving soil health and mitigating against climate change; and even tracking the reduction and regrowth of forests and other natural habitats.

This technological transformation promises farmers unprecedented ways to make their farm as efficient and productive as possible. And it will increasingly become the norm for farmers as they work to meet the 70 per cent increase in demand that the world is expected to require by the year 2030.

Much of this possibility to harness technology to boost yields exists in the developing world, where average crop yields often linger far behind those in the developed world, exacerbating levels of malnutrition.

For example, the average fertiliser application rate in sub-Saharan Africa has been increasing rapidly in recent years, from 6-7 kilograms per hectare (kg/ha) in 2008 to 11 kg/ha in 2014, and it is expected to reach 12 kg/ha in 2015. While the trend is positive, there is clearly still a long way to go before the continent even comes close to the global average. To put this into perspective, Africa currently represents just slightly less than 2 per cent of global consumption of fertiliser, despite being 10 per cent of the global population.

To achieve this, leaders on the African continent and elsewhere will need to address some key challenges to fertiliser access while also ensuring that best practices are well known and adopted. Boosting local production of fertilisers; improving access to credit, finance and insurance; and investment in infrastructure to connect farmers to input and output markets; are all solutions that need to be pursued. Furthermore, training more extension workers to work with farmers on best practices for applying fertiliser is going to be key, to enable farmers to boost yields in a safe and sustainable way.

Why the sustainable development goals are our business

It may not seem practical for a CEO to take “time out” to engage in a United Nations process like the formation of the Sustainable Development Goals. But it is clear to me that the 17 goals cannot possibly be achieved without the strong participation of the private sector. Business will always be a significant driver for innovation and development.

Every farmer is running a business. As an agricultural inputs and services provider, our business is to make theirs work more effectively. And we want to add our voice to farmers’ voices all over the world, that are calling for increased investment in infrastructure, markets, technology and good and coherent policies to make this happen.

When farmers have access to the right products, knowledge and tools, they feed our planet, but they can also lift themselves out of poverty and contribute to their countries’ broader development. And that’s a goal we can all get behind.