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Agriculture needs a rethink

Elizabeth Hernandez
We speak with an agribusiness executive about sustainability of the food ecosystem
An interview with
Head of External Affairs and Sustainability, Asia Pacific at Corteva Agriscience
A farmer sprays pesticides on wheat crops in Uttar Pradesh, India

Food systems are facing tremendous pressure from an exploding population and changing climate. As the demand for food grows – it is critical to look at the resources and ecosystem that provide this food. How can technology help make the agriculture industry more sustainable? To understand the issue of food systems sustainability, we speak with Elizabeth Hernandez, head of external affairs and sustainability, Asia Pacific at Corteva Agriscience, about how food systems can be more resilient and productive, the impact of climate change on agriculture in the region and how technology can help address some of the challenges facing the agriculture industry.

Unravel: Although the world produces a lot of food, the food system is unsustainable. The current food system puts pressures on the very resources and ecosystems on which it depends. What are ways in which this can be addressed?

Elizabeth Hernandez: The food system is a very complex ecosystem with lots of different stakeholders, from farmers to consumers and everyone in between. For us to begin to make the changes we need, it is important to look at the problem with an ecosystem-wide approach. I think what the UN is doing by convening the UN Food Systems Summit is a great way to get all stakeholders on board. Unfortunately, farmers are often missing from many of these high-level discussions, yet are expected to make the biggest changes.

Any discussion about building a more sustainable food system has to begin with our farmers. If we only look at farmers and what happens at the farm in isolation, that doesn’t solve the problem. It may increase yield and productivity, but if the farmers have no ability to sell their produce at a profitable price, then their livelihoods and the food we all rely on to eat are both at risk.

Unravel: What about food production in Asia-Pacific?

Ms Hernandez: The majority of farmers in Asia-Pacific are smallholder farmers who own less than 2 hectares of land. They are at the frontlines in facing the impact of climate change. And climate change is not something in the future. It’s here, right now and already creating many challenges for farmers today. In India, for example, in 2018, we saw the arrival of a brand-new pest (the fall armyworm) that is not indigenous to Asia or to India. But as a result of the changing climate and changing weather conditions, this pest from the Americas first moved into Africa where it decimated corn crops, before arriving in India, and caused serious damage before solutions were able to reach farmers. Fortunately, that’s when the industry collaborated with the government to get emergency approval of technology solutions that could be used to mitigate against the fall armyworm, and then get these solutions into the hands of farmers in India.

Unravel: What about the impact of extreme weather events on agriculture in the region?

Ms Hernandez: You’re seeing extreme weather conditions – from droughts to floods. It’s both, unfortunately. We’ve had the millennium drought in Australia for more than 10 years which destroyed farmlands. I know a sheep farmer in Broken Hill, in the far western part of New South Wales. She says she’s a sheep famer who has no more sheep left because they just can’t survive in the arid, almost desert-like conditions her farm has become. Meanwhile, we have had devastating floods in other parts of Asia-Pacific.

In India, farmers traditionally relied on the monsoons for their rice paddies to be filled with water. And when the monsoon didn’t come, it was a grave problem for all those rice farmers that were very much reliant on that monsoon. They used up ground water to irrigate their fields, which then led to a water crisis for the local towns.

This water crisis encouraged Corteva to look at new technologies, new practices, that could move farmers away from traditional transplanted rice method using flooded rice fields, to a direct seeded rice (DSR) method, where you don’t need to flood your fields. The DSR method can reduce 35-37% water usage, improve soil health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20-30%. Then you can grow rice in a much more sustainable manner.

Those are the types of challenges farmers are facing today from climate change. Extreme weather conditions, new pests, new diseases and despite that, we still need to raise food production by 60% to 70%. If we’re going to feed the population that we expect by 2050 (the UN says it’s going to be close to 9.6 to 9.7 billion people), we need to increase food production rapidly.

Unravel: What is the role of technology to deliver sustainable food systems?

Ms Hernandez: When we talk about technology in agriculture, particularly for smallholder farmers, we need to talk about very basic technologies such as mechanisation and quality seeds all the way to high tech solutions like AI and drones. We cannot just be enamoured by shiny new objects when it comes to agriculture.

There are two main areas of focus. First is breeding or seed technology. Our industry has done a great job of increasing agricultural productivity of rice, corn and many other crops. Today, however, we have a different problem. While we have been able to increase yield, now it is not just about quantity of food, but also quality. New breeding technologies such as CRISPR or gene editing can make a difference.

The second is crop protection. It’s great to start with the best seeds, the best genetics that you can get as a farmer, but then you must be able to protect that crop from pests, diseases or weeds that can attack it and threaten the yield level and quality. That’s where crop protection solutions come in. Over the last 30 years, crop protection solutions evolved quite significantly. Today, there are more effective solutions, with a better environmental footprint. Going back to that fall armyworm example that I gave for India, we brought a biologically derived solution to farmers to protect their crops from this pest. It’s originally from a soil bacterium and through fermentation, we have developed a range of solutions to ward-off pests, like the fall armyworm. It’s a solution that the US EPA classify as a “reduced risk” or “green chemistry” due to its low environmental footprint, low use rates, and no negative impact on non-target insects or organisms. At Corteva, we have had over 20 years’ leadership in developing these green chemistries and more sustainable crop protection solutions.

Unravel: Is the use of tech in agriculture being practiced in the region or elsewhere at scale? If yes, please tell us more about what these regions are getting right.

Ms Hernandez: We operate globally in over 140 countries. The key is to ensure that these new technologies are accessible to farmers. Accessible in terms of affordability and training on how to use these technologies.  

That’s where partnerships are critical – for successful adoption of new technologies. By working with partners, it’s possible to look at the whole ecosystem we mentioned before. From ag input side, to providing farmer with access to mechanisation, finance, sustainability training, to the eventual buyer of the harvest. For example, we have signed a partnership with the state government of Uttar Pradesh and the Water Resources Group (WRG), hosted by the World Bank. We will be supporting the conversion of 40,000 farmers to direct seeded rice. To avoid using excess water, mechanised equipment is needed to break up the hard soil. Shared access to the farm machinery keeps the cost low for farmers and helps them save on labour cost of transplanted rice. Together with financing and buyer partners, like Nestle and Pepsico, we dramatically increase the long-term success of this programme. Given the dramatic greenhouse gas emissions reductions from direct seeded rice, there is even the potential to add a carbon trading component. Partnerships are what make these new practices sustainable, systemic and institutional.

* In the second part of this interview which will be published next week, Ms Hernandez speaks about smallholder farmers, the impact of COVID-19 on awareness of food systems and new technologies in the agriculture industry.

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Head of External Affairs and Sustainability, Asia Pacific at Corteva Agriscience

Elizabeth Hernandez leads Corteva Agriscience’s external engagement strategy in Asia Pacific. She advances the company’s brand and reputation, develops strategic relationships with governments and other stakeholders across the food and agriculture ecosystem, and manages Corteva’s sustainability initiatives in Asia Pacific. Elizabeth has over 25 years of experience in Asia, mostly with multinationals, including GlaxoSmithKline, Hewlett-Packard, Facebook and DuPont (now Corteva Agriscience). Elizabeth served two terms on the Board of Governors for the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore. She currently serves on the boards of WOMAG (Women in Agribusiness) and Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL), a global partnership for digital inclusion funded by the UN Foundation and the Gates Foundation, among others. She is also a founding member of KeyNote Women Speakers, a global platform that advocates for gender diversity on the world’s stages.

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