Food security has long been a challenge for farmers, but in the future it will be the focus of an ongoing life and death battle by farmers and agribusiness to produce enough food to feed our planet.
How big is the battle? By the year 2025, we will have 8.5 billion people on Planet Earth. By the year 2043, we will surpass nine billion. By 2025 India and China will each have a middle class that contains more people than the entire population of the U.S. or Western Europe. By 2043, China and India each will have a middle class bigger than the U.S. and Western Europe combined.
Projecting further into the future, by the year 2050 farmers will have to produce more food each year than all the food produced by farmers since 10,000 BC, when most experts contend farming began.
Farmland, on a global basis, is expected to increase slightly over the next 20 years, but that’s a highly misleading statistic. Among, the world’s most productive food producing countries, like the U.S. and Canada, farmland will decrease significantly. The bottom line is the world may increase acreage slightly, but we will likely see a significant drop in acreage in developed countries.
In the Southeast, farmland is going out of production at an alarming rate. Both North Carolina and Virginia are among the top five states in terms of farmland lost to other uses.
The average age of farmers worldwide is likely to decrease slightly between now and 2043, as more people in developing nations turn to agriculture to make a living. Again, in developed countries the average age of farmers is increasing, reaching 58 years of age in the U.S. this year.
Though the world’s population will only increase by 30 percent from 2010 to 2043 that doesn’t mean we will need 30 percent more food. Burgeoning middle classes will demand, and will be able to pay for higher quality protein in the form of meat products.
For every pound of high protein meat produced, it takes three pounds of crops, whether that be corn, soybeans, wheat or other grain or forage crops.
“The best guess right now is that we will need 80-100 percent more food by 2043 than we are growing now,” says Jim Stack, a professor at Kansas State University and director of the Great Plains Diagnostic Network.
Best road to food security
Stack, a plant pathologist and expert on food security, says insuring a healthy crop is the best road to food security. New pathogens and insects are clearly a threat to the ability of farmers worldwide in producing enough food to feed the planet in the future.
In addition to providing enough food, we also want to reduce poverty and improve public health. These three factors are so intertwined that it is virtually impossible to separate one from the other, the Kansas State food security expert contends.
Stack says he is confident farmers can produce enough food to feed nine billion people, if we are willing to make some changes on a global basis.
First, he says, we have to recognize that free trade isn’t free. “I want to make it clear, I’m not anti-trade, but I am for trade with responsibilities.
“If trade is the solution to food insecurity and we want to bring developing nations into the global marketplace, we have a big challenge. At this time, we simply don’t have the infrastructure needed to produce and transport food that is free of pests and pathogens,” Stack says.
“As we increase our trade with more nations, we risk the threat of introducing pests and pathogens that threaten our ability to produce food. Plant health and plant security are essential to our ability to continue to increase yields and thus food production,” he adds.
“By opening up our country to trade from countries without the necessary safeguards against crop/food pathogens and insects, we are opening the flood gates to these kinds of problems,” Stack says.
“For example, we now grow most of the ornamental and nursery materials in foreign countries. These plants come into a port, Miami for example, and they go through an inspection process and are loaded on trucks for transport to retail centers. These crops have been harvested in a foreign country, run through their plant inspection process and through our inspection process and on trucks to the public in a matter of a day or two.
“That short two-day time turn-around from field to consumer is much shorter than the incubation time for most diseases and shorter than the biological incubation of virtually undetectable stages of many insects. Factor in the lack of a visual inspection to detect these pathogens and insects and the reality that only 1-2 percent are checked, and there is real concern for safety and security,” Stack explains.
In the Southeast over the past two years homeowners and farmers have had to contend with at least three new insect pests never before found in North America. While the marmorated brown stinkbug and the Asian soybean beetle have been bigger threats to homeowners in the Carolinas and Virginia, the threat to crops is significant.
“To meet future food production and distribution goals, we simply can’t afford to allow food security to be used to promote products from one country over another,” Stack says.
Political system not in place
“Right now, we don’t have the political system in place to deal with long-term issues related to food security, human nutrition and food distribution. In the U.S. and in most developed countries food isn’t an issue — we can go to a grocery story day or night and buy what we need.”
Investing in plant health is absolutely essential to give farmers a chance to produce enough food, and we simply haven’t made the investment necessary, not even in the U.S., according to Stack.
“In fact, without healthy food systems, we can’t meet the millennium goals of sustainable food, improved public health or decreasing poverty. Plant systems drive virtually all the food systems in the world,” Stack says.
Insuring food security begins at the farm level, but without support from throughout the agri-industry, on-farm efforts aren’t likely to succeed.
The National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA) has taken up the fight on behalf of U.S. grain farmers.
The NGFA has been out-front and vocal in lobbying the U.S. Congress to pass Federal laws that help, not hinder, farmers and grain handlers to insure a safe supply of grain. Currently, about 40 percent of all the calories consumed worldwide comes from grain, with another 20 percent coming from rice and potatoes.
“We are proud of the significant measures already being taken by grain elevators, feed and feed ingredient manufacturers, and many others throughout the food and feed system to provide safe and wholesome products for domestic and world consumers,” said NGFA President Kendell W. Keith.
A unified effort by the global agricultural community is critical for farmers to have a chance to feed the world in the future.