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To meet 2050 global demands, we need new technology, research and open minds

To meet 2050 global demands, we need new technology, research and open minds
Farmers are employing technology (such as unmanned aerial vehicles, aka "drones") to grow more food using fewer resources.

As a mom to an active toddler, I have worrying thoughts: Is my little dude keeping up developmentally with his peers? Are we reading enough books and going on enough outings? What did he just put in his mouth (and did anyone else see that)? I find my mind spinning on these  troubling thoughts all the time, even sometimes in mid-conversation with someone else. They call it “Mom Brain” and I can tell you it’s a real thing.

But, as someone who is married to a farmer, I’d argue “farmer brain” is a real thing, too.

Farmers juggle many thoughts having equal importance, like planning how to plant and harvest a crop within a short timeframe before unfavorable weather strikes, exploring if certain technologies or improvements will be worth the investment and managing how what happens on their farm impacts those downstream. We’re beginning farmers, and my husband and I certainly feel the overwhelming weight of all those pending questions.

There’s also global pressure: How will farmers, not just in Iowa but around the world, be able to keep up with a growing population?

According to the 2019 Global Agricultural Productivity (GAP) report, the world is falling short of where we need to be in 2050 to meet the food, livestock feed, fuel, bioenergy and fiber needs of 10 billion people. Understanding it is not sustainably feasible in the long-run to convert grassland or forests to cropland, researchers have been working to see how agriculture can grow more or raise more food while using the same amount (or less) of land, labor, fertilizer and feed.

What does that mean to those who claim we all must return to the “old ways” of farming?  Experts say nostalgia is great, but it won’t feed hungry people or help our climate. Only innovation that improves efficiency, more technology and research can help the world’s farmers grow more with less.  On that front, there is progress. For example:

  • The GAP report shows agricultural “output” of crops and meat proteins has increased by 60 percent while global cropland has increased by just five percent.
  • The report also shows U.S. agricultural output has increased 36 percent since 1982 while also decreasing annual soil erosion by 44 percent.
  • Using genetically modified crops globally has helped farmers reduce the amount of tillage they use which has cut carbon dioxide emissions the equivalent of taking 16.7 million cars off the road for a year.
  • Thanks to improved animal genetics and safer controlled living environments, pigs in the United States are raised on 78 percent less land with 41 percent less water—that’s a 35 percent smaller carbon footprint from 55 years ago.

Ann Steensland, coordinator of the GAP Report Initiative in the Global Programs office of the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences said she’d like to see more investment in research and development to help farmers keep pushing the envelope on advancements that can increase agricultural productivity. To make that work, there’s a real need for better access to broadband in rural areas so farmers can harness the technologies that allow them to mine useful data for decision-making and to increase on-farm efficiencies.

Research continues every day, and some recent findings from Iowa State University show even unexpected solutions like updating drainage on farms can improve agricultural land while also decreasing greenhouse gases.  It’s a win-win for us all when farmers can continue improvements in water quality by using strategic conservation practices. Other technologies like CRISPR, a gene-editing technique, can help cattle better digest their food to reduce methane, aid plants in resisting harmful insects and disease and even prolong the shelf life of food to discourage food waste. There needs to be many options on the table because there isn’t a single silver bullet that will solve all the challenges agriculture faces.

There’s also a need to bring developing countries the tools they need to increase the sustainability of their crop and livestock sectors. The 2019 GAP report shows “Latin America, India and China have greenhouse gas emissions per unit of livestock product that are two to 10 times higher than in the U.S.” These countries also need help learning how to grow an affordable, safe food supply for their people, and guess what? They come here to Iowa to learn how to do it! 

It’s a tall order for us all; balancing what we do to reach food, fuel and fiber goals AND create a healthy climate and ecosystem for the rest of us. You’ve heard how it "takes a village" to raise a child?  Well, it will also take a diverse village of farmers, scientists, researchers, agribusiness, non-governmental organizations, elected leaders— and even consumer support to help us meet our global food goals.

The “father of the Green Revolution” Norman Borlaug once said, “There are no miracles in agricultural production.” But, what I see are plenty of good people, willing to do the hard work. That’s how progress will be made, and I’m optimistic about the future of agriculture and the people in it. In fact, I’d bet the farm on them!



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