The Past: Innovation in Food

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Ask anyone in the US, or around the world, for a list of the greatest Americans of all time, you’ll get some instantly recognizable names from many walks of life. Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson…Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison and Bill Gates. Rockefeller, Ford and Carnegie. Athletes like Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson, and Roberto Clemente, activists like Elizabeth Cady, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jonas Salk. Yet the American who had perhaps the biggest impact on the world is nowhere on this list despite being one of just six people to win the Nobel Peace Prize, the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Norman Borlaug was a scientist and innovator who is credited with saving more lives than any other person who has ever lived. While a specific number is impossible to calculate, it’s estimated to be around one billion lives.

Borlaug’s genius was in agriculture. In the 1970’s, populations in Latin America and Asia were exploding. By crossbreeding thousands of wheat varieties from around the world, he was able to produce disease resistant strains that yielded 20 to 40 percent more. He also devised an ingenious technique called “shuttle breeding” that incorporated two plantings per year. But his magnum opus was the creation of dwarf wheat varieties that wouldn’t bend in the wind or touch the ground. These innovations are credited with averting mass famines that were predicted in the 1960’s.

Although he passed in 2009, Borlaug’s legacy of agricultural innovation is alive and well. Arizona based Heliae Technology is working with algae to expand how we grow our crops. Dan Simon, President and CEO of Heliae says, “Some algae have a powerful role to play as a new source of high-value nutrition for animals and people, assisting in our ability to feed an increasing number of hungry people. Other algae holds the key to a new wave of sustainable fertilizers that increase plant yields while giving nutrients and structure back to the soil for future harvests. Our production trials show increases in the amount of food we can produce per acre, thereby reducing some of the demand pressure we see on food stocks in the future.”

Monsanto offers another modern take on the Borlaug script with their new FieldScripts™ program. The data driven program considers a vast array of geographic and performance metrics to help farmers develop a customized planting strategy to maximize group yield. This information is then delivered to the farmer on a tablet running a program called FieldView. Once the plan is approved by the farmer, the plan is then transferred to a variable rate planter that mechanically plants seeds in their optimal location. It’s an offshoot of a new trend known as Precision Agriculture, or Satellite Farming, that uses geo-location (like GPS) to help the farmer determine what to plant where.

Of course, not all farming in the future will require a farm. Or even dirt. New York City based Bright Farms builds, owns and manages urban greenhouses. These hydroponic greenhouses are designed to be built atop grocery stores, but can really go anywhere with access to the sun. This model not only makes it possible to for consumers to eat local produce year round, but it eliminates the cost of shipping and reduces waste by putting fresh fruit and vegetables on the store shelf that last longer. Their mission statement reads, “For the Health of the Planet, by improving the environmental impact of the food supply chain. For the Health of Our Society, by encouraging the consumption of whole and fresh foods.” Both of which are ideals espoused by the late Norman Borlaug.

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