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Looking forward, not back, to meet the challenges facing agriculture

Looking forward, not back, to meet the challenges facing agriculture

In 1970, Jules Billard pen­ned a feature article for National Geographic entitled "The Revolution in American Agriculture" with the subheading "more food for our multiplying millions."

We largely delivered on the hopes of the 1970s to satisfy the growling stomachs of a growing world, primarily through innovation and technological development. Yet it seems folks are hardly content.

Forty-four years later, that same publication put out a special issue on food and agriculture, fretting about climate change, environmental outcomes, corporate control, hunger, deforestation, nutrition, food deserts, waste and more.

To be sure, these are important problems. But what is the most effective way to address them?

The narrative that currently dominates popular thinking about the future of food is that of the so-called "food movement" — a movement that seeks a retrogressive "return to nature."

Organic questions

The food movement has issued a call to eat more natural, organic, local food. Those are all good things in their own right.

The trouble is that most of us aren’t willing to pay (and many are not able to pay) what it costs to produce food that way. And most farmers aren’t willing to give up modern conveniences without sufficient compensation.

Fortunately, there is another way: one that not only addresses centuries-old concerns about hunger and food security but relatively new concerns about environment, energy use and human health.

Looking forward

The answer isn’t to look backward but forward.

Innovation, entrepreneurship and science that helped meet the food security problems of last century remain the best hopes for the future. Many of the solutions are already here, but they lie outside the sights of the average food consumer.

Farmers have an optimistic story to tell.

Science and technology have allowed producers to break through nature’s barriers to provide more and better foodstuffs.

Today’s farms may not have the modernistic architectural flare depicted in the 1970s National Geographic issue. But the reality is not that far off.

It’s an innovative world

Soil sensors, drones, satellite images, soy burgers, contour plowing, efficient irrigation, chicken cages and mechanical harvesters were all discussed as the future of food 45 years ago, and they are now a regular part of farm and food practices on what are larger, more specialized, but still family-owned farms that populate the countryside.

Today’s tractors drive themselves using GPS signals, and fertilizer applicators and planters distribute their payloads based on digital input from soil sensors and crop consultants.

Farmers watch the rise and fall of crop prices and follow threats of thunderstorms on their smart phones. Livestock waste is applied as fertilizer or used in anaerobic digesters to create energy for the farm. Unmanned aerial drones track crop yields, cattle location and animal health.

We face some serious challenges ahead. It will take more than what we did in the past.

Change is scary. But what’s the alternative? Eating like our grandparents? We can aspire to something more.

Lusk is a professor of food and agricultural economics at the Oklahoma State University. This article is reprinted from FB News.



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