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Global Forum for Innovation in Agriculture opens with bold message

By John Bambridge on 03.02.2014.

Abu Dhabi has launched the very first Global Forum for Innovation in Agriculture (GFIA) in an opening ceremony headed by some of the greatest innovators currently working to lead the world forward by driving efficiency and sustainability in the agricultural sector.

The first industry address of the day came from Dr. Frank Rijsberman, CEO of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which funds and co-ordinates global research aimed at reducing rural poverty, increasing food security, and sustainably managing natural resources.

“With the techniques being developed, 40,000 people could be fed using a facility just half the size an Olympic swimming pool.”

Dr. Rijsberman particularly touched on the close parallels between the needs of both the Gulf region, and many areas of Africa, which are 'dry areas' in the sense that, “growing food requires far more water than all other uses combined.”

He cited the examples of how the use of Saudi aquifers ultimately proved unsustainable, as did attempts by Qatar to solve its food demand internally, and pointed to the Gulf seeking food security in Africa, where tens of thousands of hectares have already been acquired.

However, he also noted the stark failure of existing agricultural methods, which allow 40% of children under the age of five to grow up stunted in developing countries due to inadequate nutrition, and asserted that the world will only move forward through dramatic technological innovation.

One such innovator is Prof. Mark Post, chair of the department of physiology, Maastricht University, and otherwise known as the man that brought the world its first burger grown entirely out of cultured beef cells under laboratory conditions.

The professor revealed the massive potential such techniques, particularly in the efficiency of muscle stem cells, which can each be cultured into 10,000kg of meat, and that theoretically “40,000 people could be fed using a facility just half the size an Olympic swimming pool.”

Balancing the positives to his argument he explained that the main limitation of the technology at present lies in developing a product that is palatable to the majority of individuals, and noted, speaking for both himself and others: “We need meat, and not meat substitutes.”

On a similar theme, Andras Forgaes, co-founder and CEO at Modern Meadow, a company adapting 3D organ printing technology for the production of food and organic materials, noting: “Farming is 10,000 years old, and our present methods have reached their maturity.”

The company’s cell printing techniques are being applied to the massive global markets for beef and leather, focusing in the short term on producing cultured leather for high-end fashion retailers, which is simpler to produce, less objectionable to consumers and the most financially viable application.

With future reductions in costs, however, Forgaes has little doubt that cultured meat will in future supercede animal rearing, concluding his argument with the line: “Biofabrication is more humane, more efficient, more sustainable, more evolved, and both literally and figuratively more cultured.”

The forum was also graced with a video address by Bill Gates, who together with his wife remains the single largest funding source for numerous NGO’s seeking to improve the lives of the so-called 'bottom two billion', and whose foundation has the stated aim of eliminating poverty by 2035.

The aspirations and expectations of all the speakers were perhaps best represented by a single phrase in the speech delivered earlier in the opening ceremony by Dr. Rijsberman, who enthused that, “the life sciences revolution is only just reaching agriculture.”