Ag deans address drought, food and the role of science

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We just went through an entire political campaign in which almost no one mentioned science.  But what else has a greater impact on peoples' lives?

When Hurricane Sandy tore a path of death and destruction along the Eastern Seaboard last month, scientists saved untold numbers of lives because they were able to predict the storm’s severity and impact which allowed communities to prepare much better than they ever have in the past. 

When a massive earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a tsunami in March 2011, scientists sounded the alarm so thousands of people could get to higher ground before the wall of water arrived.

When the worst drought in 50-plus years burned up crops across the United States this year, the scientists who develop new agricultural tools and technologies saved consumers from much higher food prices and shortages.

What do these natural disasters have in common? Without science, they probably would have been much worse.  Because our expertise is in agriculture and natural resources, let’s take a closer look at just one example: The 2012 drought.

Roughly two-thirds of our country was in drought by this summer’s growing season, the U.S.  Drought Monitor estimates.  Federal agriculture officials expect grocery store and restaurant consumers will feel the drought’s effects first in higher prices for beef, pork, poultry and milk products. That’s because reduced crops will cause higher feed costs, and fewer animals being raised for meat and dairy production. Over the coming months, prices also are expected to tick upward for packaged and processed foods like cereal and bread, as manufacturers have to pay more for reduced supplies of the grains used in those products.  The drought has also tended to delay the planting of winter wheat this fall, meaning that next year’s wheat yields could be affected, extending the impact of this year’s drought on prices into future years.

In the short term, scientists can’t do much about a drought and the resulting rise in food prices. But science is all about the long term. We can’t pinpoint exactly how much worse the drought could have been, but we do know that because of agricultural research advances in the last few decades, modern crops are better equipped to withstand a dry summer and fall. In Iowa, the last significant drought in 1988 resulted in a 35 percent decrease in corn yields from the year before. In this drought year, the expectation is that Iowa corn yields will drop only about 17 percent from 2011. And scientists are developing technologies and practices to ensure that livestock and poultry are safe, healthy, and biosecure during trying times. 

Scientists at land-grant universities like ours have developed corn and soybean varieties as well as agricultural best practices that produce higher yields, thus helping to make up for crop losses in drought-stricken areas. Across the country and the world, agricultural scientists are working on new crop varieties that require less water and fertilizer, or that have stronger resistance to the diseases that could devastate our food supply even without a drought.

Still other scientists at universities and in the private sector are studying how thoughtful use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides can help preserve the health of our soil and water, and how to meet demand for animal products in environmentally sustainable, humane ways.

Land-grant university scientists are studying how to improve feed efficiency and livestock nutrition, especially in this time of rising feed costs. Success in this research would lead to lower cost of production for the animal agriculture industry and less expensive meat and meat products for consumers. We may see impacts of this work on global food security as the ability to reduce the quantity of feed required to produce the protein people need is enhanced.

But none of this disaster prevention happens without public support.  America needs policies that support science, particularly the agricultural sciences that have given us the cheapest, most plentiful and safest food in the world.  The new Congress and the President, despite their reticence on the campaign trail, should not be afraid to talk about science, especially agricultural science, as a key priority for our nation.

Throughout the 20th century, farm productivity in the United States improved dramatically, along with the introduction of refrigeration and a national transportation network that made it possible for most families to enjoy fresh, safe, healthy food at any time of year.  Even better, because of those and other advances, Americans today pay a smaller percentage of their income for food than they did 50 years ago: about 10 percent of disposable income now versus 16 percent in 1962. We should be thankful for all of this.

Could our country and the world be facing a food disaster in the coming decades? Certainly. The stakes keep rising in the ability to feed billions more people. The risks keep increasing as climate becomes increasingly extreme and natural disasters continue to happen. A fast-growing, hungry global population combined with fewer public resources devoted to research on increased productivity and disease resistance could lead to food shortages or skyrocketing prices, along with grim long-term effects on our soil and water.

Scientists aren’t superheroes who can prevent catastrophes, unfortunately. But they do some pretty amazing work, and if our national leaders do more to support public science as a solution to our challenges, we’ll still be able to say: “It could have been worse.”



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W.E.    
KY  |  November, 21, 2012 at 10:18 AM

A great deal of important scientific knowledge has been overlooked, discarded or discounted during the past seventy years, as our penchant for newer and more manipulative technologies has placed profit above good common sense. Look, for example, at the writings from the 40-year career of botanist and mycologist Albert Howard, who came to realize the importance of truly healthy soil, which results in the health of plants and the livestock animals that consume them, which in turn ensures better health for the people they feed. We will eventually discover that the epidemic of obesity in the U.S., along with a host of other health problems, begins with diseases of the soil brought on by a long-term over-simplified approach to supplementing soil fertility - what Howard called the NPK mentality. Consider also the work of a team of University of Illinois researchers led by professors Richard Mulvaney, Saeed Khan, and Tim Ellsworth. In two recent papers the trio argues that the net effect of synthetic nitrogen use is to reduce soil’s organic matter content. Why? Because, they posit, nitrogen fertilizer stimulates soil microbes, which feast on organic matter. Over time, the impact of this enhanced microbial appetite outweighs the benefits of more crop residues. As for weather, consider an article by Douglas Sheil and Daniel Murdiyarso published in BioScience, How Forests Attract Rain: An Examination of a New Hypothesis. Two Russian scientists, Victor Gorshkov and Anastassia Makarieva of St. Petersburg Nuclear Physics, have published a revolutionary theory that turns modern meteorology on its head, positing that forests—and their capacity for condensation—are actually the main drivers of wind and rain rather than temperature.


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