I recently attended a conference in Minneapolis of international ag journalists. Representing six continents, our conversations were surprisingly similar when talking about how we do our jobs. But, differences quickly surfaced when discussions turned to solutions to feed a growing--and hungrier--world.
During the event's farm tours, our global guests marveled over the large Midwestern crop and livestock operations that embraced the latest technologies, tools and transgenic traits. That's in stark contrast to the agriculture many of the reporters from Africa observe where smallholder, labor-intensive farms struggle just to have access to commercial seed and fertilizer.
FILLING THE FOOD GAP
Such differences only add to the challenge of closing the food gap, one where overall food demand will increase by more than 50% and demand for animal-based foods by nearly 70% by 2050.
A recent World Resources Report ("Creating a Sustainable Food Future") proposes a menu of options that could allow the world to meet growing demands for food. Many of its proposals focus on developing countries, while using the U.S. as a model. The authors tended to focus on solutions that prevent deforestation, stabilize the climate and promote economic development. However, they readily admit any effort will involve balancing many competing needs. For example, the authors recommend avoiding competition from bioenergy for food crops and land even though many governments have adopted goals to increase energy production from biofuels.
One main course touted for achieving food security centers around increasing production without expanding agricultural land. The report explains the massive yield gains from 1960 to 2010 were achieved in large part by doubling irrigated area and extending the use of scientifically bred seed and commercial fertilizer to most of the world.
These five items form the foundation to boost productivity without adding to the world's farmland.
1. Increase livestock and pasture productivity. Pasture makes up 2/3 of all agricultural land. Where moisture is adequate, the authors suggest implementing intensive grazing and forage management, and using more inputs and labor, especially in developing countries.
2. Improve crop breeding to boost yields. Debate about GMOs isn't likely to subside. Instead, gene editing, CRISPR and other breeding advances will lead the way for yield gains in many parts of the world.
3. Improve soil and water management. Degraded soils may affect 1/4 of global cropland. Efforts should focus on revitalizing and regenerating these soils, while implementing sustainable practices that promote soil health.
4. Plant existing cropland more frequently. Where feasible, implementing higher cropping-intensity programs would increase production without requiring new farmland. However, there are significant environmental costs in some regions to planting fallow croplands that must be factored in.
5. Adapt to climate change. To counter some climate effects, farmers need regional crop-breeding efforts so they can select alternative crop varieties specifically adapted to local conditions. In addition, small-scale irrigation and water-conservation systems will help farmers cope with rainfall variability.
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