Global population growth could outstrip food production

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February 14, 2012 - 6:00pm

Editor's note: Today and tomorrow (Feb. 15 and 16), the Governor's Ag Conference is being held in Kearney, Neb. NET News reporter Perry Stoner sat down with two of the conference's featured speakers to discuss food shortage challenges as the world population continues to increase.

About a month after Dr. Archie Clutter started his job last September, the world's population reached 7 billion people.

Graphic by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News

Click the image for some facts and figures about agriculture in Nebraska. Information compiled by the USDA.

Estimates show that by the year 2050, it'll be 9 billion people. But Clutter, dean of the Agricultural Research Division at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a featured speaker at the Governor's Ag Conference, said the demand for food might grow even faster than the population.

"We also expect, along with that population growth, we expect and we hope for some growth in the prosperity of the global population," he said. "So it may be that those 9 billion people may demand more in per capita food consumption than people do today - so those 9 billion may eat more like 12 billion.

"So there are great challenges ahead of us to feed that global population, and it's important that we do it in a sustainable way."

(Find out more at the Center for Investigative Reporting's "Food for 9 Billion" project.)

To meet expected future demand between now and 2050, Clutter said agriculture output will have to grow more than it has in the last several decades.

"Just to think about the magnitude of that challenge a little bit, we know we've experienced great progress in food production over the last 40 years - the green revolution - but if you look at the increases in production for major grain crops over that period, they increase1.1 percent to 1.3 percent per year," Clutter explained, adding that that's not enough: "If you think about the amount of production that's going to occur, even with conservative estimates of what those 9 billion people will consume, we're going to perhaps have to double our food production between now and 2050."

This challenge faces the ag industry as a whole, but also affects individual farmers - like Butler County farmer Bart Ruth, who's been growing corn and soybeans for 30 years. He's a former president of the American Soybean Association, and said the challenge isn't just about growing more commodities.

"I think we'll continue to see pretty rapid adoption of new technologies (like) precision farming methods, and we'll see technology that's coming on the market here," he said. "Clearly, we need to do more with less: we need to increase our yields, increase our efficiencies in our delivery of products around the globe. And at the same time we need to be more vigilant in our consumption of natural resources, whether that's water, whether that's fertilizer, and maintaining the soil integrity."

Bill Holbrook is research and analysis director at The ProExporter Network, a Missouri-based company that provides information for the grain industry. Holbrook is also speaking at the Governor's Ag Conference, and said increased production of grains in Europe is changing the industry.

"On the supply side, we are really focused in on three main export hubs: the U.S., South America (and) now we are also looking at the Black Sea region from the former Soviet states that are in that area, and the tremendous growth that we've seen the last three years as far as their export of wheat and also corn," he said.

"In the past, we've been the predominant corn supplier to the world," Holbrook continued. "We've dropped off from a 60 percent share down to a 44 percent share this last year, so we are looking at a different competitive market. Throw in weather on top of that, and four out of 10 years we are going to have a major crop problem somewhere in the world."

Providing food to the world is more than just growing enough crops. It's a complex system of production, transportation and distribution.

What happens with market shares depends on many factors apart from just the weather. Holbrook said the grain transportation system in the United States needs to be addressed, and that an efficient, capable system will be even more important in the future. That's because he sees the U.S. increasing the amount of grain grown, but the facilities to handle it must be in place.

"If we continue to see the yield trend line growth that we've seen in the past 15, 16 years, we see that continue along those lines, we are going to have a much larger volume of grain to be storing and handling at harvest time, and that is going to be one of the biggest infrastructure changes," he said. "We're already seeing a lot of grain bins being set up on farms, a lot of commercial storage going up."

But the need could outpace growth - Holbrook said if current trends continue, the U.S. could be 4.5 billion grain bushels' worth of storage.

"So going through and getting rid of some of the inefficient locations and putting in newer high-speed locations is one of the biggest challenges we are going to be facing."

On Nebraska farms, state-of-the-art technology is contributing to the busting grain bins. Bart Ruth said things like GPS auto-steering and automated planting are causing bigger yields.

"It allows us to position better strands of hybrids on good parts of the farm, while at the same time reducing the population on the parts that don't perform," he said. "I think that not only allows us to produce more, but (also) better utilize our resources."

Ruth added that he sees many of his neighbors quickly bringing new technology to the farm.

"We've seen very profitable years, so I think we've seen quicker adoption of some of this technology than we would have, say, five years ago, because of the economic environment. But entry level into the precision ag stuff is not out-of-reach for most producers," he said. "Full integration of variable rate planting methods and those kinds of things are more costly, so they will be adopted by the larger farmer first, and as those costs come down the smaller ones will adopt it.

"As I look around the countryside, some of the folks I see adopting auto steer technology, for example, which is an entry-level, I'm really surprised; the people that are doing that are some of the people that I would have never imagined (it) being something of interest to them."

Ruth said he isn't concerned about the producers in the industry stepping up to the challenge of the future.

"If history is any guide, American farmers are very good at over-producing for the marketplace, so I have no doubts that given the incentives, producers will produce the crops and the food that the world needs," he said.

Back on campus, Archie Clutter said Nebraska and its diversity in the ag industry allows it to play a leading role in meeting future food demand. From his position with the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at UNL, he sees the state as a laboratory where systems of food production can be researched and shared.

"Within that diversity, of climates and rainfall, soil types, we can find models for production in other parts of the world," he said. "It's important, certainly, that we focus on research and we emphasize research that's important to the people of Nebraska, (but) we can do that and at the same time address these global needs."

The last few years have been largely profitable for the ag industry. That, Clutter said, puts the state in an ideal position to build upon what will be needed for agriculture in the future.

"We need to design programs to help us strengthen the economy of the state, and provide greater opportunities for people to profit in agriculture, and I think there's consistency there," he said. "I think we can work on the global problems and do it in a way that helps strengthen the economy and our communities."

Both Clutter and Ruth said continued research in crop genetics and technological improvements that allow for more efficient use of inputs will be important in the coming years.



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