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Population growth will test farm efficiency

Ron Smith

May 5, 2010

9 Min Read

By the year 2050, global population will reach 9 billion, a figure that poses significant challenges to the agricultural producers who will be charged with providing adequate food and fiber to nourish and clothe that many people.

To meet production goals, farmers, ranchers and the industries that support them with seed, crop protection products and equipment, must find ways to make significant improvements in farm productivity and efficiency.

The process is already under way as producers currently rely on industry innovations such as genetically modified seed with herbicide tolerance and insect resistance, targeted crop protection materials, site-specific agriculture and more efficient water management systems.

But more is needed, industry and university research spokesmen say.

“The food supply will be a global challenge,” said Adrian Percy, vice president, development and market support, Bayer CropScience, at a recent crop consultants’ seminar in San Antonio, Texas.

Percy said a rapidly increasing world population, non-food demands for grain crops, pressure on land resources, growing wealth (a rising middle class in developing countries) and climate change will demand that farmers and ranchers produce more on less land.

Syngenta also sees a future for agriculture that will require a new approach to evaluating efficiency. The company cited some of its goals in a recent release.

Productivity will be measured against a new yardstick that factors in the effects of crop production on land, soil, water and energy, says Jennifer Shaw, Ph.D., head of sustainability with Syngenta.

“This is where demands to increase the sustainability of agriculture are leading us,” says Shaw. “It’s a consequence of our population growth, and the planetary needs of this growth, which will see 2 billion more people by 2050 — more than 100 million right here in the United States.”

Monsanto also has embraced sustainability as a core part of its agriculture business and has applied the World Commission on the Environment and Development’s definition of sustainable “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” to agriculture.

“Our challenge is to produce more food over the next 50 years than has been consumed since the dawn of agriculture while protecting and enhancing our only environment,” said Michael Doane, who leads Monsanto’s sustainable agriculture efforts. “How do we surmount these obstacles? Agricultural innovation holds a key solution, and Monsanto pledges to do our part.”

Doane points out that in 1960 the average acre of land, globally, supported one person and that almost doubled, increasing to 1.8 persons in 2005. He estimates that by 2050 an acre of land will need to support between 2.4 and 2.6 people.

It’s a trend that’s been accelerating for more than 50 years. “From 1950 through 2000, the world population doubled,” Percy said. By 2050, the world will include 9 billion people. Socio-economic changes, including increased buying power, especially in developing countries, will put better quality food within reach of more people.

At the same time, “the availability of arable land for crop production will decrease,” Percy said. Some of that acreage will be converted from food production to feedstocks for biofuels. Improvements in food productivity will be necessary. “In 2007 and 2008, food prices went up and food riots occurred in some places. Prices have moderated, but the underlying trend is still evident.”

Shaw says meeting the demands of a growing population is nothing new to agriculture. Today the American farmer feeds an average of 144 people, almost an eight-fold increase from 1940. Most of the increase has come from higher yields. Per-acre production of corn, for example, has doubled since 1970.

“The goal is still more bushels, bales or pounds per acre,” says Shaw. “But this time around, yield increases must be achieved against a backdrop of limited, and in some cases, diminishing natural resources, from the obvious inputs, such as topsoil and water, to the less obvious, like ecosystems that support the bee populations that pollinate our crops.”

“Innovation,” Percy said, “will be the key to meeting those increased food demand challenges. “More food on fewer acres means producers will have to manage resources better. They will have to increase yield and do a better job with water management.”

He said industry will have to develop better products, including plants with more tolerance to stresses such as drought, cold and heat for agriculture to become more sustainable and more efficient.

He said Bayer (and other companies) will need to increase research and development budgets to create new traits for seeds, new agro-chemicals and biological crop protection products. Cereal crops will be a new target. “Products for wheat, for instance, are falling behind as other crops enjoy increased profitability,” he said, even though wheat acreage is higher than any other crop.

Percy said sustainability will be a key. “We have to meet the needs of today without compromising the future. Economy, ecology and society all play roles in sustainability. We must develop innovative, environmentally friendly products. And we must practice product stewardship and be mindful of healthy nutrition, public health and hygiene.”

Shaw agrees and contends that farmers can be both eco-friendly and profitable.

“It’s already happening,” she says. “Productivity must be a key component of sustainable agriculture. Every acre that produces more food, feed and fiber helps to keep another acre in its natural habitat, preserving natural landscapes that are essential for ecosystem balance.”

The difference today is the way we measure production, she says. “We need (to measure) beyond bushels per acre. How much land are we using? How much water? How much energy? What is the effect on soil health and water quality? With a new yardstick in place, we must incorporate environmental initiatives in a way that preserves grower profitability.”

“We’re not re-inventing the wheel, but building on what’s already out there,” says Terry Stone, sustainability value chain manager with Syngenta. He says more than two-thirds of cotton growers use some form of conservation tillage, which not only prevents soil erosion but also saves energy and water. Many also have begun rotating crops as well as modes of action to manage weed and insect resistance, protect beneficial insects, and increase yields.

Monsanto has developed new principles to guide its sustainability efforts.

“We found three core areas that impact the sustainability of agriculture — producing more, conserving more and improving the lives of farmers,” Doane said. “We see it as a three-prong approach and put goals in place for each area.”

Monsanto put those initiatives in place two years ago and now focus on accomplishments by 2030. Initiatives include:

• Developing improved seeds for corn, soybeans, cotton, and spring-planted canola to help farmers double yields from 2000 levels, with a $10 million grant pledged to improve wheat and rice yields.

• Conserving resources through developing seeds that use one-third fewer key resources per unit of output to grow crops while working to lessen habitat loss and improve water quality.

• Helping improve the lives of all farmers who use Monsanto products, including an additional five million people in resource-poor farm families by 2020.

Other industry leaders have risen to the challenge as well.

“We have decreased cotton’s use of water and chemicals by 40 percent, and we can tie that directly to the use of new technologies like Bt cotton and precision agriculture,” says Janet Reed, associate director of environmental research with Cotton Incorporated.

The public sector also responds to the need for more efficient production. Jaroy Moore, resident director, Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Lubbock, says farmers will be asked to “do more on less land. That’s what we’ve always done here for the hundred years the station has existed,” he says. (The center celebrated its centennial last fall.)

But the job is not done. “We continue to make strides,” he says. “That’s what keeps producers going. Even a little improvement helps them keep costs down and allows them to be more productive.” He says better efficiency allows one farmer to do more per acre, farm more acres and reduce risks.

Water use, Moore says, will be a crucial research focus. “Our researchers will work on water use from all different directions, from the economics of irrigation to development of more efficient plants.”

Texas AgriLife researchers are studying ways to make irrigation systems and the crops they water more efficient. “We’ve done a lot of work on water efficiency. Both LEPA (low energy precision application) systems and subsurface drip irrigation (SDI) are significant improvements over row watering, but we continue to work on efficiency with increased pressure to preserve the aquifer.”

He says site specific agriculture also plays a crucial role in improving farmer efficiency. “Some practices do not work here as well as they do in other locations,” he says, “but global positioning systems, especially with drip irrigation, make a significant difference.”

He says GPS is a crucial tool when installing drip lines as well as for accurate seeding and cultivation.

Moore says weed control and other pest management operations benefit tremendously from the precision afforded by GPS technology.

The multi-disciplinary approach taken by public research will serve industry as well.

“We will focus on integrated solutions,” says Monte Christian, director, U.S. cotton operations and global fiber technology for Bayer CropScience.

In addition to moving into cereal crops, Christian said Bayer would focus on increasing cotton yield potential. He said six-bale per acre cotton might be a reasonable goal. “Two bales per acre used to be the benchmark,” he said. “But the difference between a record yield and an average yield is significant and shows we have tremendous room to move cotton yields.

“We have to learn to manage stresses to produce better, more consistent yields. To do that, we have to identify traits that are already in the plant.”

He said cotton production has seen significant increases in just the last ten years. “From 2000 through 2003, average yields in Texas were less than 500 pounds per acre. Over the next six years yield skyrocketed.”

Better varieties, along with efforts like the Boll Weevil Eradication Program and increased production efficiency account for the improvement, he said.

“There is power in the seed.”

“Producing more per acre and conserving resources is already the focus of farmers and we have a role in developing products that help them move forward,” Doane said. “Agronomic practices, accelerated breeding practices and use of new biotech-derived traits offer the potential to help farmers reach those goals. This all has to be done with an eye on economic sustainability for the farmers doing the work; that’s the final component.”

Those better varieties, along with other innovations and perhaps a strong commitment from industry, public research and farmers and ranchers likely will meet the expectations and demands of a growing population. The key might be balancing production with protection.

“The common denominator must be return on investment,” says Stone. “A farm that is not profitable is not sustainable, but neither is a farm that pursues profitability without considering the environmental impact.”

e-mail: [email protected]

About the Author(s)

Ron Smith

Editor, Farm Progress

Ron Smith has spent more than 30 years covering Sunbelt agriculture. Ron began his career in agricultural journalism as an Experiment Station and Extension editor at Clemson University, where he earned a Masters Degree in English in 1975. He served as associate editor for Southeast Farm Press from 1978 through 1989. In 1990, Smith helped launch Southern Turf Management Magazine and served as editor. He also helped launch two other regional Turf and Landscape publications and launched and edited Florida Grove and Vegetable Management for the Farm Press Group. Within two years of launch, the turf magazines were well-respected, award-winning publications. Ron has received numerous awards for writing and photography in both agriculture and landscape journalism. He is past president of The Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association and was chosen as the first media representative to the University of Georgia College of Agriculture Advisory Board. He was named Communicator of the Year for the Metropolitan Atlanta Agricultural Communicators Association. Smith also worked in public relations, specializing in media relations for agricultural companies. Ron lives with his wife Pat in Denton, Texas. They have two grown children, Stacey and Nick, and two grandsons, Aaron and Hunter.

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