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Is Agriculture Ready to Feed 9 billion?

Is Agriculture Ready to Feed 9 billion?

New farm crop technology is needed to stay ahead of demand.

Note: The following item was written by Stan Howell, vice president, North America, Dow AgroSciences, and it offers his take on the challenges ahead.

One of my earliest memories is walking fields with a hoe as a nine year old boy, chopping weeds out of beans on my family's Indiana farm. It was hard work but had its advantages. It convinced me there surely had to be a better way to get rid of those weeds.

Is Agriculture Ready to Feed 9 billion?
And in time there was. Even back then, modern herbicides were making farming more productive and less labor intensive. Then glyphosate-tolerant crops took things to a whole new level offering more economical weed control, fewer applications, less cultivation and significant environmental benefits.

My father was a real stickler about weed control and also about being a good neighbor. He didn't want herbicides drifting onto our neighbor's property. So when glyphosate-tolerant crops first came out, he put buffer strips around our fields that year. Turned out, we didn't need them, but he wanted to make sure there wouldn't be a problem.

Glyphosate was certainly a miracle product. But when glyphosate-tolerant crops first came out there was plenty of opposition. And that's no surprise. Breakthroughs in crop technology usually face some resistance at first.

When the first cast-iron plow was patented in 1797, people wouldn't buy it. They were afraid an iron plow would "poison" the soil and foster growth of weeds. Eventually, people sort out what's true, based on personal experience.

Today, agriculture stands at another crossroads. Overreliance on glyphosate has led to weed resistance, and a few critics now say herbicide-tolerant crops were a mistake. While it's true agriculture has learned a hard lesson from overreliance on a single tool, as someone who walked hours of beans as a boy I for one do not want to go back. And odds are, neither do you.

(Where would this country even find the labor to do all the work these earlier forms of agriculture required?)

New crop technology is urgently needed.

Last year, our planet's population reached seven billion people. By mid-century, there will be two billion more. Dietary shifts from rice and black beans in emerging nations to added animal protein are creating still further stress on the biosphere.

Meeting these increased dietary requirements is not just a moral imperative. Food security is a serious concern for stable international relations, even today. And this food security challenge must be met with essentially the same land now in production, unless we subject more limited, remaining habitat to the plow.

The farming I knew as a boy could not support our current population. Nor will the needs of tomorrow be met with today's practices: not without new technologies, some of which have not yet even been contemplated. Little did I know as a boy wondering about better ways to manage weeds that our world's future might one day hinge on how well we answered that question.

There will always be initial opposition to new crop technologies. But I am a great believer in pooled ingenuity and the ability of reasonable people to work together and constructively resolve their differences. In my lifetime alone, our nation's farmers have learned to produce 260 percent more food, with fewer farm inputs.

Do we have the resolve and the resourcefulness to do it again? I believe we do. But then again, we're going to have to.

Tomorrow is coming. And sooner than we think.

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