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Looking for half-full glass in gloomy economic forecasts

I just got back from Austin where I covered the Sourcing USA Summit. That’s a bi-annual meeting for cotton buyers and sellers from more countries than I could count and deals with the economics of the cotton industry.

Mid-November, 2008, was not a pleasant time to discuss the economics of the cotton industry. They should have added an anti-depressant tray to the oatmeal cookies they offered during the breaks.

Many of the presentations had been prepared before the sharp downturn in the global economy, back in September, so some speakers had to modify an already gloomy forecast to account for a worsening outlook.

Reports indicate an ample supply of cotton could keep a lid on prices for months. Other reports indicate the recent downturn in oil prices will not hold and that price should recover to $100 a barrel in 2009.

The global economy, not just the U.S. economy, is in the toilet, reducing potential for U.S. exports. Consumption most everywhere is down.

Optimists predict recovery to begin sometime in 2009. More pessimistic outlooks anticipate a recession extending out from 18 months to three years. Pessimists outnumbered optimists.

Luckily, I’m an optimist—my wife sometimes says stupidly so—so I kept looking for half-full glasses. I unearthed a few.

Much of the discussion concerned long-term outlooks, as far out as 2050, at which time I’ll be 101(I said I was an optimist, didn’t I?). By that time the world population will have grown to more than 9 billion, adding something like 3 billion from today’s total. (I wonder if they’re including me in that number. Forgot to ask. But I digress.)

Feeding that many more people will demand more of farmers than anyone could have imagined 50 years ago. But it occurs to me that agriculture must become a more important, a more visible part of our culture. Farmers may be afforded the respect they have deserved for decades as they use their experience, dedication and natural resources to feed and clothe the globe.

It will not be easy. Consider that farmers likely will have to nourish another 3 billion people or so on fewer acres than they use now. And they’ll have to do it with less water. Technology will provide some of the answers as agricultural scientists develop drought tolerant varieties that thrive on less nitrogen fertilizer and produce higher yields. Engineers will devise better irrigation methods, better tillage practices and new ways of capturing and holding moisture.

Water may become the new oil, and those who learn to use it efficiently will prosper. Biotechnology will continue to improve crop management techniques and will help farmers protect yields and the environment.

Energy use will change. Biofuels production likely will remain part of the solution, but wind farms and solar panels will play roles as well.

Information will be valuable currency as farmers, engineers and scientists endeavor to keep pace with a rapidly-changing world that demands more and more goods and services while maintaining the planet.

My personal optimistic view is that agriculture will lead the charge into a world that marries technology to old-fashioned grit and committment to soil and water. Who better to turn to for sustainability than the folks who practice it as a matter of principle and pride?

Let’s check back in about 41 years.


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