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Water is key to increases in agricultural productivity, commissioner says

To increase yields enough to feed the projected world population of 9 billion people in 2050, farmers may have to increase their yields of corn, for example, from this year's average of 171 bushels per acre to more than 500 bushels per acre.

That's a staggering number for the mind to comprehend, but that may be what it takes, according to Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry Mike Strain. Strain talked about the challenges and opportunities facing farmers in a speech at the Southern Crop Production Association’s annual meeting in New Orleans.

"If you look at the opportunities we have in agriculture, there's a demand for us to triple production in the next 30 years," he said. "And by doing that it's going to take a lot of effort by everyone to make this happen. We have the greatest opportunities for production and to sell this product to increase profitability of American agriculture by 100s of billions of dollars.

"At the same time, we're under increased regulatory pressure so when you look at the new regulatory rules, the interpretative rules of the Waters of the U.S.; if you look at some of the things we'll have to be dealing with under the Food Safety Modernization Act. When you put all these things together, and especially in areas where we've never had regulatory pressure, and at the same time we're having to increase production, we're going to have to be very interactive among ourselves to make this work."

Dr. Strain says that when farmers look at going from 171.4 bushels to 500 bushels per acre on corn, "it's going to take an increased, but appropriate amount of nitrogen, phosphorous and other nutrients. The other key element is how do we better use the water that we have. How do we use that water and use it more efficiently."

Research is ongoing, of course, and Dr. Strain, a large animal veterinarian before he went to the Louisiana Legislature and then to the Commissioner's office, believes solutions will come such as "real, on-time analysis of the plant and appropriate use of fertilizer."

Another set of challenges and opportunities involves the inland waterways system, which moves up to 60 percent of U.S. agricultural exports out of this country and to ports around the world.

"We have more than 14,000 miles of inland waterways in the entire Mississippi River Valley Basin," says Dr. Strain. "We have a lot of aging waterways infrastructure that is now beyond its expected life span. We need to make sure we have a way to finance those needed improvements."

Much of the funding will come from taxes on diesel fuel and ad valorem taxes on goods being shipped down the Mississippi River system, "but the key to that is whatever dollars we raise through those taxes must go to those infrastructure projects. If we do that, we will have an appropriate way and a cost-efficient way to move all these products and export them worldwide."

Water is key, rail is key and highways are, as well, he says, if the U.S. is to be able to take advantage of the increased food production that is expected and move it out to the remainder of the world's population.

"If we do that, we can have a strong command of the worldwide market," says Dr. Strain.

For more on the need to rebuild America's aging waterways, visit 

What price infrastructure improvements for inland waterways

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