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Tech Tuesday

Creating Another Green Revolution

We think of Borlaug's as the first green revolution - it's not - but creating yet another jump in food production is going to be a tough challenge.

Readers of this column and others online know that we're headed toward 9 billion people in less than 40 years. That's a scary thought if we can't feed 'em all and frankly we've got 1 billion now that have little or now food security. That's the challenge agronomists, soil scientists and others discussed today in a symposium as part of the 2010 meeting of three major societies in Long Beach, Calif.

The meeting of the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America and the Soil Science Society of America involves more than 2,000 attendees and hundreds of sessions over three days. I sat in on the symposium titled "Challenges in Achieving a Second Green Revolution" and boy are there challenges.

Of course, right out of the chute, Tom Sinclair, with North Carolina State University and author of "Bread, Beer and the Seeds of Change" challenged attendees noting that this wouldn't be the second green revolution but it might actually be the third or fourth.

Crop and soil scientists from around the world settled in to take part in a symposium that explored the challenges for achieving the next green revolution.

For this week's blog, a look at the historical 'green revolutions' might give us all some perspective. Sinclair starts with the Sumarians who created what we would recognize as modern agriculture which required math and a written language as the market developed. This was the core of the original first civilization near the Tigress and Euphrates Rivers (the Euphrates was more important he says).

As Sinclair talked about this development of ag he explored the amount of nitrogen available to the crops at the time. Turns out the nitrogen in the river was a solid source for crops producing 1.8 tons of food per hectare. Eventually, of course, all that water use let to increased salinity, forcing the Sumarians to move farther north where they were eventually defeated as a people.

But it's that availability of nitrogen that drives these revolutions and higher food production. The next stage or green revolution came from the Greek's who discovered the three-field rotation boosting available nitrogen through the fallow approach, but they were nitrogen limited and that eventually led to problems as the population rose.

Next came Great Britain in 1700 where the four-field Norfolk rotation that included oats and turnips to feed horses - which freed up labor to do other things besides farm. They were also able to double yields with the rotation.

Of course the more familiar 1950 green revolution was based on the manufacture of nitrate nitrogen from a process originally developed in Germany at the turn of the 20th Century. That created usable nitrogen from methane and let to a rapid increase in yields.

Today comes the need for the next green revolution. And what does that mean for your operation? One common theme that emerged from all of the presentations was that solid farm management has real value for increasing production even with limited resources. That's the "tech takeaway" this week, that your brainpower and that management skill has value in terms of turning resources into food.

As the policy makers, agronomists and others take on this next green challenge, they can't leave you behind. Yet forward-thinking farmers are going to want to get ahead of the development curve and find ways to maximize nitrogen use through rethinking crop rotations (Sinclair says legumes will have to be part of the mix).

Nine billion mouths to feed is a big challenge but we have a 40-year head start and while biotech will be helpful in the process, so will traditional breeding methods and good old-fashioned savvy farm management.

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