‘Agriculture the plastics of the modern era’

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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 well-heeled guests. A man takes him aside and says there is just one word to consider: plastics.

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 week 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 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 Thursday’s 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 week 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.

Another U.S. Senator who spoke at last week’s event, Jon Tester, Democrat from Montana, 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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Len Rosen    
Toronto, Canada  |  June, 18, 2012 at 01:13 PM

Urbanization, particularly urban intensification, should ensure that agricultural land will be little affected by growing human population. Urban farming is a technology that is not mentioned in this article but could contribute a significant amount to solving the growing food demand. New water usage technologies, both high and low tech sould make it easier to put water where it is needed most. Grey water recycling systems should recapture much of the urban water we use to reduce depletion of water resources in rural areas for urban use. And genetic engineering should allow us to change the way we produce not just botanical crops but also meat. Will we grow meat on the hoof or on a matrix? If we can address the finite limits imposed by freshwater and land through conservation, recycling and technological innovation we should ride the crest of human population through the mid-century before we see birth rates diminish and our total population plateau and then start to fall slowly. The carrying capacity of the planet for our species and the rest of biology is under threat but we have the technological and inventive means to address the challenge and succeed. What we need is political will, education and leadership to drive the needed agenda.

Barbara Richards    
Milwaukee,WI  |  June, 18, 2012 at 03:58 PM

Viewing agriculture as a "plastic" medium is precisely the problem. For the solution I suggest you try reading "What Matters" by Wendell Berry. The earth has already said "no" but most developed country people go on leading their lives of conspicuous mass consumption without having seen or heard earth's voice.

Washington  |  June, 20, 2012 at 12:05 PM

Peak Phosphate will make feeding the world much tougher in the next few generations because of environmentalists. Ecopoliticians are pushing biofuel feedstock be grown, which accelerates the depletion of global phosphate supplies. The peak is estimated at less than 50 years. Water supplies also suffer because of biofuel feedstock demands for irrigation. Neo-Malthusians want humanity to suffer so as to reduce global populations. They want agriculture to decrease.

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