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Agriculture’s successes tempered by challenges

. “It is no longer safe to assume that U.S. crop production is in a self-sustaining, steady state," says a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Everyone in the ag sector knows agriculture is one of America’s shining success stories. But now and then, it’s interesting to see facts about what U.S. farmers, researchers public and private, agribusinesses, and farm organizations have collectively achieved.

“U.S. farmers produce 34.1 percent of the world’s soybeans, 35.5 percent of the world’s corn, 13.4 percent of the world’s cotton, and 7.6 percent of the world’s wheat. Crop production accounts for approximately $194 billion per year in agricultural cash receipts. In 2016, agricultural domestic exports of crops reached $108 billion ($21 billion soybeans alone) and created an estimated $171.3 billion in additional economic activity.”

Those data are from 2018 reports from the USDA-ERS, USDA-FAS, and the U.S. Trade Representative, and are part of a study, “Science Breakthroughs to Advance Food and Agricultural Research by 2030,” from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

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In 2016, agricultural domestic exports of crops reached $108 billion and created an estimated $171.3 billion in additional economic activity.

“Yields of major staple crops grown in the U.S. are the highest, or near to the highest, in the world,” the report notes. “Since the 1920s, yields of corn have increased more than eightfold, and soybean and cotton yields have increased more than fourfold, due primarily to advances in plant breeding, fertilizer use, and equipment efficiency. Despite successive years of weather disasters, the yield performance of America’s premier crops is a remarkable testament to the resilience and success of the varieties commercially available today.

“With increased support for public sector agricultural research and public-private partnerships, it will be possible to bring the breeding success in corn to many other crops … at a much faster pace than is currently possible. Moreover, these efforts can be used to ‘harden’ crops against the effects of extreme weather and increased pest and disease pressure, while maximizing yield and increasing nutritional content and flavor … while reducing the need for costly inputs.”

But, the report cautions, there are challenges in meeting the food needs of a rapidly increasing world population. “It is no longer safe to assume that U.S. crop production is in a self-sustaining, steady state. First and foremost, the natural resource base for U.S. agriculture is increasingly fragile. Groundwater and fertile soil are finite resources, and their use and misuse define the boundaries of sustainable production in the long term. Aquifers supporting the majority of U.S. production are being drained, and soil quality in some parts of the country is degrading. These developments set the stage for lower productivity and the need for crops that can perform well in less-than-optimal environments. Crop systems are also stressed by changing weather patterns and extreme weather events. The need for crops that are are resilient to multiple abiotic stresses, such as drought and flooding, will be a challenging problem for breeders over the next decade…and pests and diseases are an increasing threat.”

Read the entire report, which outlines opportunities for meeting these challenges, at https://bit.ly/2DcOzRC

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