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Fodder for Thought

Producing More May Not Be Agriculture's Path To Future Success

Instead, agriculture should produce smarter, think bigger and waste less.


In this week’s Feedstuffs e-newsletter a piece by my fellow Beef Producer blogger, Andy Vance, caught my attention. Vance’s article discussed a recent report released by the University of Minnesota and Canada’s McGill University that suggested patterns of crop yields are stagnating in several of the world’s major cereal crops.

The study observed global census data for four key crops including maize, rice, wheat, and soybeans, spanning a period from 1961 to 2008. In this time period, researchers noted while yields continued to increase in many areas, yields in 24-39% of crop-producing areas never improved or stagnated or collapsed.

The researchers noted both biophysical and socioeconomic causes such as climate change play a role in the observed yield trends in their study. In turn, the paper suggests two plans of action:

  • First, it calls for a continued effort to maintain the positive yield increases seen on 61-79% of cropland.
  • Second, it says to examine yield trends in crop-producing regions around the world to determine what is working and where there is room for improvement.

The researchers also note crop production over the past 20 years has not been able to keep pace with the increases seen in population and demand of agricultural products. Even with a 28% global increase in crop production seen between 1985 and 2005 it was still not enough.

Studies like this one highlight the growing need for a new approach to solve the challenges of feeding a rapidly growing human population. However, I disagree that a continued emphasis on increasing yields in crop production (as suggested in the aforementioned study) and in livestock production, for that matter, is the answer.

It is obvious something in the equation is missing. More research looking at the same factors will tell us nothing new. A new approach is needed – a new way of thinking about and looking at the same problems.

In my scientific education and research training I was taught the conventional approach of viewing a problem or question in isolation, which involved control and manipulation of the variables to test a hypothesis.

The fact remains though that when studying agricultural production systems we are also studying ecosystems and countless biological life forms. In such an environment we cannot effectively isolate anything, let alone control the multiple variables affecting it.

To truly understand the environment, all the many factors affecting it must be viewed in their entirety. Isolation of one part tells you only about that part and nothing about the whole of which it was a part or how that part works within the whole.

My point is by placing such a strong emphasis on increasing yields over the past several decades, researchers and agriculture as a whole have been missing the bigger picture.

Maybe producing more is not the answer.  Instead, maybe we should be worrying about how to waste less. And maybe it is more important to understand how to work with our environment to optimize our agricultural outputs with what naturally occurs, instead of always thinking we need to add more and more inputs.

Some efforts in this direction have been made. They can be seen in the incorporation of ecology, which seeks to recognize the interaction of the parts with the whole of the environment, into many agricultural programs. In addition, the rise seen in the practice of holistic management and planning by many farmers and ranchers shows an increasing awareness of the need for a more complete understanding of what we are managing and researching.

Many in agriculture would like to see a more collaborative approach taken between researchers in varying disciplines when it comes to conducting research. In addition, a continued need exists for research with practical application in real-world settings that relates directly to on-going problems producers face.

Granted, some in academia are already taking a more collaborative and holistic approach to their research. However there will always be room for improvement. While we may not have all the answers, the growing number of individuals who recognize this fact are slowly helping us to move toward where we need to be.

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