Never in history has so much been required of agriculture. In addition to the ever-present mission to feed the world, agriculture is expected to help mitigate climate change, develop alternative energies, improve human health and create new sources of food and nutrition.
In just 50 years, the over nine billion people then living on this planet will require 100 percent more food than is needed today. Translation: agriculture will need to produce in that same time period twice the amount of grain, livestock and other products.
Because of environmental and practical limitations, there is simply insufficient high-quality land to just "grow" or "raise" more food. According to the World Bank, there is at most 12 percent more arable land available for food production that isn't presently forested or subject to erosion or desertification. There also will be significant limitations on water availability in the future. By 2050, it is estimated, four billion people, eight times as many as today, will be living in countries with chronic water shortages.
The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization reports that new farmland could meet 20 percent of this new food demand and increased cropping intensity may yield another 10 percent. The remainder – an overwhelming 70 percent of the additional world food needs – must come from technology and innovation.
Technology advancements and corresponding productivity gains in agriculture across the 20th century were remarkable and arguably prevented major famines or devastating food wars. Consider the following:
• Corn yields in 1910 were about 15 bushels to the acre. In 1960, they were 55 bushels per acre, and today, they are well over 160 bushels – a 300 percent increase in just the last 50 years. Wheat and soybean yields have seen 215 percent and 169 percent increases in that same 50-year period.
• The livestock sector, too, continues to provide more high-quality protein using fewer resources. The U.S. dairy industry produces nearly 60 percent more milk with 64 percent fewer cows than it did some 65 years ago. And, the same trend holds for pork. Compared to 1950, U.S. hog farmers produce 176 percent more pork per sow with 44 percent fewer sows.
• A century ago, each U.S. farmer's production fed only a dozen or so people. Today, the average U.S. farmer feeds 155 people.
Our next set of great challenges, though, will require even greater solutions and must come not only from the U.S. but from around the world. Investment and commitment to these three unique, yet inter-connected, areas are especially critical to our problem-solving.
Read Beth Bechdol's entire article that was published in Nebraska Pork Talk.