Population growth demands improved farm efficiency

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 underway 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.

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 1 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.”

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,” Moore 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.”

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TAGS: Management
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