Unlocking knowledge to achieve global food security

John Rogers is a One Young World delegate who spoke during the Global Business Plenary Session at the 2014 Summit in Dublin.

Our global population will eclipse nine billion by the year 2050. Much of this growth will occur in developing countries, where rising incomes mean market demand for food will grow at an alarming rate. In light of these trends, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that global food production must increase by as much as 70% in 2050, in order to protect food security.

One barrier in meeting this demand is the limited availability of new land for agriculture. The FAO suggests that 90% of future growth in crop production will depend upon improving yields on existing agricultural lands. Coupled with the impact of climate change, and increasingly limited natural resources, the challenges of increasing food production are as real as they are complex.

I am the son of a farmer. Throughout my academic and professional pursuits, I have come to realise the invaluable knowledge of my father, the farmer. He is a master of the farming industry – knowing each field, its soil and its slope, and how to care for both crop and animal in an ever changing market and climate. It is this expertise that we must unlock in order to achieve global food security.

[[[image-1 large]]]

Barley is the primary ingredient in our beers, and at Anheuser-Busch InBev I am responsible for developing barley across four continents and 25,000 farmers – a farming network reflecting a tremendous amount of experience and knowledge. Through further work and research we began to see startling differences in barley productivity, along with large gaps in yield value. With this we realised an opportunity; if we can introduce a way to close these gaps, we can create transformative value for our growers and our company.

For many years we have utilised a benchmarking process across our breweries and vertical production facilities to identify and close gaps in processing efficiency and productivity. This robust benchmarking approach has delivered significant capacity and cost benefits to our business. With these results in mind, and together with colleagues and farmers, I led the development and launch of SmartBarley.

SmartBarley is a technology that allows barley farmers across the world to benchmark their production against one another through forty-three crop performance measures such as yield, nitrogen use, efficiency, and irrigation productivity. The programme is facilitated through skilled agronomists, many with extensive experience supporting barley production, deployed across our global farmer network.

The technology, which is designed around the farmers, enables them to discover positive proven practices. We facilitate the exchange of knowledge between the developed world and the developing; allowing a farmer in the US to learn from a farmer in Brazil, and developing skills that not only apply to barley production but to all the crops our farmers produce.

Today, two-thousand farmers in eight different countries are participating in SmartBarley; a number which continues to rise.  We have focused on moving quickly and at scale, wanting to maximise the programme’s reach while extending our learning and innovation opportunities. This speed is possibly due to our vertical structure and culture, where shared targets driving SmartBarley execution are cascaded from senior management to our agronomists.

At the same time, we are partnering with leading scientists to use this data to create statistical models that capture the relationship between climate and barley production. Our aim is to develop new knowledge that, when disseminated through the SmartBarley platform, helps our farmers better adapt to changing climates in the future.      

Through developing farm-to-farm benchmarking platforms we can enable farmers to exchange best practices that increase productivity, as well as conserve natural resources.  My hope is that the design and execution of SmartBarley can be used as a model; one that can be emulated by other businesses, governments, and civil society organisations to empower farmers to teach and learn from one another.  Through new technologies, we can indeed strive to feed nine billion people.

You can watch the One Young World Summit 2014 in Dublin on our livestream as it happens: http://www.oneyoungworld.com/.