The Future of Food - 5

Every Farmer, Every Tool Important for Food Security

Jason Jenkins
By  Jason Jenkins , DTN Crops Editor
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Kansas farmer Justin Knopf (left) believes the key to improving agricultural productivity on his farm begins with the soil. (DTN photo by Matthew Wilde)

On the plains of central Kansas, America's breadbasket seemingly stretches out in every direction. Fields of wheat and corn, sorghum and soybeans dominate the landscape. It's a land of plenty, a testament to the fertile prairie sod and the farmers who toil upon it.

Yet, Justin Knopf sees past this local agricultural abundance. The fifth-generation farmer has set his sights well beyond the Kansas horizon.

"When Russia invaded Ukraine, and 30% of the world's wheat supply was almost immediately called into question, it really brought increased clarity to me about the significance of our ability to consistently produce food," said Knopf, who farms with his father and brother in Gypsum. "It's affected my mindset. Now, when I spend time working on our wheat crop, my role as a grower and the importance of the crop to both our domestic market and the world market have really been amplified."

In the special series "The Future of Food," DTN is looking at food insecurity but also some of the future trends, crops farmers plan to grow, technology they'll use and even new ways to grow their crops and process their animals more efficiently.

In today's story, the fifth in the series, we look at how to increase productivity globally to meet the world's food needs.


War and geopolitical turmoil, however, aren't the only factors influencing the world's ability to feed itself. Global agricultural systems have been affected by climate change and extreme weather events -- droughts, floods, wildfires -- as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. The result is greater food insecurity and malnutrition worldwide.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that between 702 million and 828 million people worldwide faced hunger in 2021, and 11.7% of the world population, or 924 million people, was exposed to severe food insecurity.

The Global Agricultural Productivity (GAP) Report, produced by Virginia Tech, assesses what production agriculture must achieve to keep pace with a growing world population. In order to sustainably produce food for an expected 9 billion-plus people in 2050, agricultural productivity growth, measured as total factor productivity (TFP), must increase at an average rate of 1.73% annually. However, the latest GAP Report released last fall revealed that from 2011-2020, TFP grew at an average rate of only 1.12% per year, a significant drop from the 1.99% rate from the previous decade.

"TFP increases when agricultural outputs increase, while inputs either decrease or remain the same," says Tom Thompson, associate dean in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and executive editor of the GAP Report. "When we see increases in TFP, it means that farmers are adopting techniques and technologies that allow them to produce agricultural products more efficiently. When it decreases, other factors are preventing that from occurring."


Since 1961, when the world's population was roughly 3 billion people, gross agricultural output globally has increased fourfold, while input use has slightly more than doubled. World population has increased more than 2.5 times to 8 billion people during that time.

Reversing the current decrease in TFP and ensuring that enough food can be produced sustainably around the globe to feed everyone requires policymakers to recognize that a one-size-fits-all approach will not be successful, Thompson explained. Regional differences must be considered.

For example, the increased productivity seen in the past 60 years has not been equally distributed around the globe. In the United States and other developed nations, farmers have had access to improved seeds, fertilizers, crop-protection products and technology, allowing them to increase yields. In 1936, U.S. average corn yield was about 26 bushels per acre (bpa). This past fall, USDA forecast corn yields of 172.3 bpa.

But, in other regions, the same improvement has not been realized.

"The state of Iowa produces more corn than all African nations combined," said Kyle Poorman, director of international dialogues for the World Food Prize Foundation, based in Des Moines. "It's in these developing regions where access to quality seeds -- either genetically modified or conventional -- and access to other quality inputs could go a long way."

But, increasing productivity in the field is just one leg of the global food-security stool, he added. Improvements in infrastructure and market access also are needed.

"Currently, we are producing enough food to feed the world, but it's not distributed in a way that gets to everyone," Poorman explained. "Developing storage at scale and building out efficient distribution networks like we have in the United States in developing countries would be the ultimate goals. If we can reduce postharvest losses, we don't need to produce more."

Thompson said that overall, 35 to 40% of all food that's produced annually on the planet is lost. In lower-income countries, it takes the form of postharvest losses before it ever reaches consumers. In higher-income countries, the loss takes the form of food waste -- throwing out what isn't consumed.

Another area of priority in both low- and high-income countries is the need for more investment in public agricultural research and development (R&D), as well as Extension services.

"Almost without exception, African nations have weak public ag R&D systems today, but even in the United States, these investments are at their lowest level since 1970 when adjusted for inflation," Thompson said. "That's the research and development engine that drives agricultural technology and innovation forward."

He said it should be a world goal that every farmer has access to every tool. "That's what's missing in so much of the world," he added. "Let's create those environments where farmers can access the best proven technology and make their own decisions about it."


Back in Kansas, Knopf isn't searching for any "silver bullets" to increase the productivity of his family's farming operation. Instead, he's working to build up the farm's resiliency in the face of adverse conditions, and that begins with the soil.

"The ability of our soils to function well is where I place my emphasis," he said. "We're a dryland operation, so I need a soil that can effectively capture as much rain as possible, especially during intense rainfall events. That soil has to be able to store that water until our crops need it."

Knopf also is focused on improving the biology of his soils, learning how to manage cropping systems in a way that creates habitat and fosters a "living" soil. He said he tries to implement as many of the five basic principles of soil health by keeping the soil covered at all times, minimizing disturbance, maintaining a living root, maximizing diversity and integrating livestock.

"Improving the stewardship of our soil resource in the heartland is absolutely imperative to intensifying our production system," he said. "At the end of the day, my job really is to capture the energy of the sun and transform that energy through photosynthesis into something that nourishes people."

In the past decade, Knopf said they have increased the diversity of their cropping system, integrating more cover crops and expanding double-crop acres. The expanded crop rotation has helped alleviate some weed and pest challenges, and the cover crops have allowed him to reduce herbicide use while ensuring that fertility, especially nitrogen, remains in the biological system instead of being lost to leaching or denitrification.

"War. Greed. Political corruption. These are things that I can't control as a farmer," Knopf said. "But, if I can grow something that can offset some of that and be a beacon of freedom and hope and peace, that to me is motivation to continually try to do a better job each growing season."


Editor's Note:

-- For more information on the 2022 GAP report, visit…

This is the fifth story in "The Future of Food" series.

Other articles in the series include:

"Editor's Notebook,"…

"The Future of Food - 1,"….

"The Future of Food - 2,"…

"The Future of Food - 3,"…

"The Future of Food - 4,"…

Jason Jenkins can be reached at

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Jason Jenkins