Will only part of the world be fed?

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Movie aficionados will remember the scene from “The Graduate” where the main character, Benjamin Braddock, is at a lavish party thrown by his parents, receiving career advice from the wellheeled guests. A man takes him aside and says there is just one word to consider: plastics.

Things have changed since the movie was released in 1967. Today, the best career advice might be summed up in one word: agriculture.

“Agriculture is the plastics of the modern era,” former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman told those attending a Future of Food Summit last June in Washington, D.C.

Glickman and others referenced the challenge ahead of feeding a burgeoning world population.

The challenge is to increase food production by 70 percent over the next 40 years. Many knowledgeable people, like Glickman, believe the challenge can be met.

Growth industry

According to Glickman, the world population will increase from about 7 billion now to 9.3 to 9.5 billion by the year 2050. This will require a lot more food — 70 percent more, by many accounts, since higher living standards will increase demand by a higher percentage than just the population growth alone.

For years, Glickman pointed out, U.S. food policy centered on surpluses and what do to with them. Now, the surpluses have dwindled and food supplies are much tighter. “We are no longer in a period of massive surpluses like we have been,” Glickman said.

It will open up new challenges and opportunities.

Chris Policinski, president of Land O’Lakes and another speaker at the Food Summit, agreed with Glickman’s assessment of the situation, saying that agriculture will probably be the “greatest growth industry of our era.”

Potential strategies

How does agriculture feed all of the people without ripping up the soil and tearing down the forests in a huge land grab? Glickman asked.

For years, agriculture has been able to improve productive capacity — and that will need to continue.

Since 1960, the average U.S. farm has increased productivity by six-fold, says Samuel Allen, chairman of Deere & Co., the farm implement company. It’s all about getting more production out of each acre of land.

Many examples are unfolding around the world.

In Brazil, where rainforests have been cut down to create more pasture land, farmers are keeping the soil in production — despite the fact the soil is very acidic and can degrade — by treating it with limestone and phosphorus. This has helped relieve pressure on the rainforests. The rate of deforestation in the Amazon region has dropped significantly — from 27,423 square kilometers in 2004 to 6,450 square kilometers in 2010.

With GPS technology, it is now possible to guide a tractor down a field without the operator even having to touch the steering wheel, Allen said. It makes for a more precise tillage pattern, with fertilizer and other inputs used only where they need to be.

Moisture probes placed at the root zone of plants can tell when a field needs to be irrigated and when it doesn’t.

Satellite imagery can map the biomass of individual farms, providing a prescriptive approach for the land. Perhaps there is a section of land that doesn’t grow well under wet conditions. With the prospects of a wet year on the horizon, the farm’s advisors can map a strategy for overcoming the problem in that particular area.

Jason Clay, senior vice president of the World Wildlife Fund, cited the example of Mars Candy Co. working with cocoa producers in West Africa. They had determined that 20 percent of the cocoa trees produced about 80 percent of the crop. So, they mapped the genome of those trees and, through plant breeding, hope to produce four times as much cocoa on 50 percent of the land.

Can we do it? Absolutely!

At the Alltech International Symposium held in May in Lexington, Ky., a number of visionary people gathered to discuss the same challenge of global food production.

The consensus was yes, agriculture can keep up with a growing world population.

It’s absolutely possible, says Mark Lyons, vice president of corporate affairs at Alltech. “At the same time, we would say that a lot of the technologies around today may not be the ones that will make this great leap for us,” he says.

New technologies, such as nutrigenomics, will become increasingly important.

With nutrigenomics, it will be possible to influence or control genetic expression in animals. Certain feed ingredients will be able to switch on genes in the animals, leading to improved production.

For example, “we can produce more meat more efficiently,” Lyons said.

It will revolutionize nutrition, said Karl Dawson, chief scientific officer at Alltech.

“You’re going to see more changes in nutrition in the next 10 years than you have seen in the last century,” Dawson said.

Political will

While technology appears to have unlimited potential, the outcome of the food issue will ultimately hinge on government policy.

Will governments around the world embrace the new technology? Will certain governments ease up on the restrictions they have placed on genetically modified food?

Several of the speakers at the Future of Food Summit last June said it’s important for the U.S. to encourage rural development in emerging regions, such as Africa and Asia. In Africa, many farmers just need the same basic technology that farmers in the U.S. have used for a long time, Glickman said. 

Yet, on the heels of the Iraq and Afghanistan military engagements, many Americans may be weary of continuously pushing resources overseas, said U.S. Senator John Boozman (R-Ark.).

Water is another factor. The world’s water supply is finite and could prove to be a huge impediment to agriculture development. “We’re already in a water crisis in some parts of the world,” Policinski said.

As nations become increasingly urbanized, cities will be in a position to out-bid rural areas for available water supplies.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), summed up the problem of finite land, limited water and a growing population this way:

“At some point in time, the earth is just going to say ‘no’ — too many people.”

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mn  |  July, 04, 2012 at 12:00 AM

The last comment about too many people is not what I think...it is greed that is the problem.

Carroll Wade    
Jasper N Y  |  July, 04, 2012 at 05:50 AM

Many of the more developed countries of the world throw away as much as 35% of the food harvested each year . Dr. Lowell Cattlet puts it this way ; " The average garbage can in the U S is fed better than over 50% or the worlds population . " I believe that we need to teach the people of the less advanced countries how they can feed themselves , rather than being arrogant and ignorant in thinking that the U S can feed the world . Most of the people from these less advanced societies could produce enough for themselves if they were not being preyed upon by others who are encouraged by monies and weapons from greedy outsiders who seek to reap profits from other peoplles missery .

Washington  |  July, 07, 2012 at 03:47 PM

Water, not technology, will be the limiting factor. The green revolution was made possible more by cheap energy and irrigation from aquifers that are being rapidly depleted. Soil too, only has so many nutrients for super plants to harvest and make available. In order for GMO's to provide what they promise, more water and more nutrients will have to be found.

Kyle Booth    
Vermont  |  October, 09, 2012 at 08:28 AM

One of the examples in this article titled "Will Only Part of the World be Fed?" talks about how we can improve cocoa production by genetic manipulation. First, cocoa is not going to help feed starving people. Second, using technology sometimes takes away the knowledge of mature and local landscape learned over generations around the world in different cultures. This article seems to use technology as the answer while not changing the system that has been creating the problem. A smart man once said, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." His name was Albert Einstein. We need to change the way we think about the problem and how we formulate a solution. How did people survive before electricity and fossil fuels? They did survive. Technology is not needed to feed the world. Knowledge, understanding, and a willingness to work with the people of the world are really what is needed. A food forest is a great example of how we could start to feed the world sustainably. Here is a link for an introduction to forest gardening: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forest_gardening

Dr. G    
Sullivan, IL  |  October, 09, 2012 at 10:09 AM

Kyle: Yes, some people did survive before we had technology, fossil fuels, etc. but the few that did survive lived 'nasty, brutish and short' lives to quote Thomas Hobbes. The statement that "technology is not needed to feed the world" is one of either willful ignorance or pie-in-the-sky utopianism. One area that technology will be vital is in desalinating water. We have all the water we could possibly ever need- we just need to figure out how to make it usable.

Wisconsin  |  October, 09, 2012 at 11:33 AM

We can have technologies piled high to the ceiling but if there's no-one there to use it it won't do anyone any good. I just love how all of these high minded company and government "visionaries" get together and tell us what the needs of the world are and what's being done to produce food. Don't get me wrong I think any advancement in the technology of food production is great as long as that technology is safe. But,..... where are the farmers who ares upposed to use this new tech going to come from? It is cited that farm production has increased 6 fold since 1960. Amazing stuff! But the farm population was something in the 10 - 15 percent range of the entire U.S. population at the time. What is it now? What is the worlds farm population? Just a guess on my part but I'm thinking it's around 20 percent. (mostly in Africa and Asia) Very high but most of the worlds farmers can barely feed themselves. The statement from Sen. Jon Tester speaks volumes as to the the blind eye that is turned towards agriculture. Too many people? That's an excuse for more goverment intervention. The right question to ask is "Too many people doing what?" The earth is not going to be the one who says no since the potential for world food production has yet to be tapped. The world population is growing while the farm population becomes increasingly older and fewer. It won't be the earth saying no,... it will be the farmer. I wonder sometimes if maybe that's what we should do. What are the priorities of the world? Is it more important to make more kids they can't feed? Is it more important to kill each other defending a false religion? Is it more important to grow governments and not food? Is it more important to have fun?

Batavia, NY  |  October, 09, 2012 at 12:34 PM

Why should I worry if half of the world is too stupid to feed themselves. I have to pay enough taxes as it is too feed stupid, lazy Americans on food stamps. I can not work any harder to feed half of the world also. This Glickman group looks like a bunch of people who are conspiring to make a large profit on the food supply system. We do not need more corruption!

Kyle Booth    
Vermont  |  October, 09, 2012 at 12:53 PM

Dr. G, my statement is not ignorant nor pie-in-the-sky-utopianism. It is the reality of what can happen when people work together. I do not condemn technology, but I think the system is the first issue to be addressed. You can add technology to an existing broken system and you get an existing broken system laden with technology. It is not an answer. One could also argue that technology has been part of the problem. It allows for faster growth, growth that may be unhealthy. Replacing human labor with machines may speed the work up, but now you have people out of jobs needing a new way to feed and provide for themselves. By solving one problem with technology, you have created multiple more problems and have not positively affected the main problem which is feeding the world. Technology consolidates power to the few that can afford the technology, and it ties those who can't afford the technology into a constant routine of trying to catch up with those who have the technology. A true solution will look at the entire system. I have not seen industrial agriculture look at the entire system yet. You say we have all the water we could possibly need, but the consequences of using desalination for a majority of our water would destroy the earth. The enormous amount of energy it takes to desalinate water would use up our fossil fuels, destroy ocean ecosystems, and probably have dramatic effects on the global climate. Also, whoever controlled the desalination equipment would control life. You are proposing some scary ideas here Mr. G. If we practiced water capture techniques and deforested less land, we would not have to irrigate as much and would not have to think about desalinization and all of its consequences.

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