Producing enough food to feed 9 billion people by 2050 could be the biggest test sustainable agriculture has ever faced. The difficulty is balancing the preservation of natural resources with the technological development needed to meet these goals.
To get it done, David Cleary, director of agriculture for The Nature Conservancy, says there must be collaboration between agriculture and environmentalism. During a panel discussion on sustainability at Monsanto’s Media Days, Cleary clearly understands that, well, we’re all in this together.
“It is critical for the health of the world’s food system that the American agricultural system maintains yield and productivity gains over the past 40 years to 50 years,” Cleary said. “It’s also critical for the health of the world’s food system that the United States continues to play its historical role as the biggest center for technological innovation.”
On the other hand, Cleary is unapologetic in blaming agriculture for not paying enough attention to the environment in the past.
“Historically, yield and productivity gains have been bought at the expense of topsoil. You can extend that to water as well. The science is pretty unambiguous if you’re looking at hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, or algal blooms in the Great Lakes. There is an agricultural contribution to that.
“Looking forward, I think there has to be some kind of grand bargain between agriculture and the environmental side of the equation. There’s a huge amount of devil in the detail. It’s not as though there is a single silver bullet. But there may be some silver buckshot. There are solutions out there that we can deploy.”
Rick Tolman, chief executive officer, National Corn Growers Association, cited recent studies indicating that U.S. corn producers have discovered and implemented quite a few nuggets of agricultural sustainability over the last 30 years.
“Since 1980, the land that it takes to produce one bushel of corn has declined by 30 percent, the soil loss per bushel has declined by 67 percent, the water used to irrigate a bushel of corn by 53 percent and the energy use to produce a bushel of corn has been reduced by 43 percent.
“We have made continued improvement, we still have room to grow and improvement will continue. It’s been a great story of sustainability and it has been done scientifically,” Tolman said.
The next 35 years will demand that agriculture continue to shrink its environmental footprint while doubling food production. Environmentalists are sure to want more rules and regulations. Agriculture – the freedom to be innovative.
“We need to be very careful that we don’t take away the solutions to the problem,” Tolman said. “Some well-meaning proposals would take away some of the tools that have allowed farmers to intensify agriculture.”
Hopefully, the twain shall meet in a reasonable place for everyone.