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U.S. agriculture can feed the growing world

By J. Scott Angle
University of Georgia
College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences

It is crystal clear that rising population and growing nutritional demands will require food production to double by 2050. Yet, land available for food production is unlikely to increase, and, in fact, may decrease.

Where the increase in food production will occur depends upon geopolitics, climate or climate changes and environmental considerations.

Europe isn’t likely to adopt new technologies to increase food production. In the United States, agricultural patterns are changing with climate changes. Climate change will likely exacerbate drought conditions in western United States. California’s current drought may become permanent.

The Southeast has a long growing season, abundant sunlight, good soils and reasonable amounts of rainfall and groundwater. Agriculture in the region must grow to meet world food demand.

Keeping pace with population

For years, Malthusian predictions were that mass starvation was inevitable as populations grow. The evidence has been just the opposite. Food production has kept up with population and improved nutrition of less-developed societies. In fact, there is a worldwide food surplus. But there are still starving populations. Most often the situation isn’t lack of food, but an inability to move it to where it’s needed, often due to local political instability.

There is every reason to believe that rising yields and improved nutrition in agriculture will continue for many years. Most yield increases have come from new technologies from the U.S. system of agricultural research and education.

The partnership of land-grant universities, the federal government through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and private industry has allowed American farmers to maintain the technological advantage for a century. As someone who works in the area, I’m certain this system will continue to produce the discoveries that have driven this success. Yet, as other countries adopt the technologies we develop then modify them for low-cost production, we are under constant stress to push farther ahead of the curve. This issue is particularly important for labor-intensive crops.

In Georgia, farm production continues to increase and remain adaptable. Strong evidence is shown in changes from 2007 to 2008. 2007 was a terrible year for Georgia farmers. One of the worst droughts on record played havoc on nearly every aspect of agriculture. Some commodities like the green and landscape industries were decimated when watering bans assured new plants wouldn’t survive. But, despite the drought and economic downturn, 2008 was better, in terms of farm-gate value, than 2007.

This is a testament to the tenacity and creativity of farmers who can still make money in the face of so many problems. For 2008, the total value of farming and processing in Georgia was $55 billion. The industry generated 356,000 jobs for the state, a source of jobs that has remained stable. This confirms what we have known for many years: agriculture, while not immune from economic downturns, is less impacted than most sectors of our economy.

Misperceptions

There is a general perception that we have fewer farms than in the past and that farms are consolidating and getting larger. The opposite is true. We have more farms than we did 10 years ago, and farms are smaller than a decade ago. This trend is likely attributable to growing demand for locally produced food. Americans have a renewed desire to know where their food comes from.

Fortunately, our political leaders understand food production is an issue of national security. We can’t always count on other countries for food. No one wants our food production shipped overseas. It’s bad to be dependent on imported fuel. It would be disastrous to depend on other nations for food. We have only an 11-day food supply in the U.S. food chain. If that chain is broken, critical problems arise immediately. We never want to be in a position where food can be used as a political weapon against us.

Unlike other industries that can revive after prolonged inactivity, agriculture is different. It may be impossible to ever bring this knowledge back once lost. It’s not just training workers in the science and practices of agriculture. Agricultural knowledge is location-specific, learned over generations and part of the ingrained heritage of a farming community.

Water planning needs

Water is an overarching factor affecting the future of agriculture in the U.S. The western U.S. has good water policies. The Southeast, however, always assumed that water supplies were unlimited. Unprecedented drought over the past two years demonstrated water isn’t unlimited.

States need planning, development and deployment of infrastructure, policies and technologies to meet future water demands in agricultural and non-agricultural use. This is critical during drought. There’s no reason to dump millions of cubic meters of water into the Gulf of Mexico at the expense of agriculture. Water shortages in agriculture can irreversibly harm agriculture.

The U.S. needs to aggressively promote our agricultural products around the world. Foreign sales of agricultural products remain one of the bright spots for U.S. trade. Future trade agreements shouldn’t be made that hurt U.S. agriculture. In 2007, agriculture was one of the areas that alleviated our trade deficit. That year, we imported $79 billion versus $116 billion in exports. Don’t kill the golden goose.

A seldom considered issue -- but one that will have a significant impact on U.S. agriculture’s future -- is supporting economic development in poor countries. Future demand for U.S. agricultural products will come from rising incomes and consumer demand in these countries. We can help the world’s poor and U.S. agriculture at the same time.

Food and fuel

U.S. agriculture can not only feed the world, it can provide energy. The Southeast has been labeled the Saudi Arabia of bioenergy. Energy production from grains, especially corn, is a short-term solution. Cellulosic ethanol is the long-term hope for energy production from plants, especially pine trees, something Georgia has plenty of. However, technological breakthroughs must be made before this happens. Whether they come next year or 10 years from now remains to be seen.

Farmers are good stewards of the land and natural resources. Agriculture is a strong, stable segment of the nation’s economy. Given sound policy, strong support, solid investment in research and education, and stepped-up focus on food safety, security, science and trade, U.S. agriculture is poised to meet the demand to feed and nourish the growing world population.

(J. Scott Angle is dean and director of the University of 003C Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.) 01FF

(J. Scott Angle is dean and director of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.))

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