The chief executives of DuPont and Archer Daniels Midland Co., two major players in international agriculture, and the agriculture secretary for the Netherlands spoke Wednesday, the first day of the conference in Des Moines.
All three said demand for food worldwide will double by 2050 and agriculture must meet that demand by increasing production on land already in use.
A survey done by ADM showed that if each of the top 15 food producing nations or regions consistently produced 80 percent of their best yields, it would significantly increase production without adding acres, said Patricia Woertz, chairman, CEO and president of ADM, which produces food ingredients, animal feeds, biofuels and other products.
"These yields alone would dramatically enhance availability of crops for food, for feed, for fiber and fuel uses," Woertz said.
She called for investment in developing countries to improve transportation, processing and storage facilities to handle tomorrow's larger harvests. The investment could reach $83 billion, she said, and would require partnerships "up and down the supply chain from farmers to consumers, with government, with communities."
Government and industry also need to work on achieving gains in a way that doesn't harm the environment, Woertz said.
"We would need to continue to develop regionally appropriate practices to improve water utilization," she said. "We also need to improve crop nutrients and pest control and getting desired gains with minimal environmental impact."
The seed industry needs to use all the tools of modern plant breeding to bring improved products to farmers faster, said Ellen Kullman, CEO of DuPont, whose agricultural division produces seeds, herbicides, insecticides and other products. DuPont also owns Iowa-based Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., which produces seeds for a variety of crops.
"Further efforts are necessary to make sure farmers around the world, both large and small, have access to seed technologies and the best knowledge that will allow them to increase their productivity," Kullman said.
She pointed to the success DuPont-run programs have had in developing nations.
"In Ethiopia, we've helped growers teach other growers to increase their yields ... and in the past 13 years our customers in Ethiopia have gone from planting no hybrids to planting about 25 percent of their farmland with hybrids and this has quadrupled their yields," Kullman said.
Gerda Verburg, the agriculture secretary from the Netherlands, said agriculture is crucial to conservation and sustainable use of natural resources. In many countries, it's also a primary form of economic development and helps reduce poverty, she said.
Referring to the so-called "green revolution," in which high-yield, disease-resistant crop varieties helped more than double world food production between 1960 and 1990, she said another is needed "in the most literal meaning of the word.
"This means a revolution of ideas, a revolution of technologies and a revolution in agricultural and trade policies ... as well as providing the financial means," Verburg said.
"If we want a second green revolution we need to modernize agriculture by combining the best farm knowledge with the best ... science as well as promoting good land and water stewardship," she said.
The World Food Prize and the annual conference where it is awarded was founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug, a crop scientist known as the father of the green revolution.
Ethiopian scientist Gebisa Ejeta, now a professor at Purdue University, will be honored as this year's recipient of the $250,000 World Food Prize on Thursday. Ejeta will be recognizedfor his breakthroughs in developing a drought-resistant sorghum widely used in Africa.