How Are We Doing at Feeding the World?

It’s estimated that worldwide production of foodstuffs must increase by an average of 1.75 percent between now and about 2050 when the global population is expected to peak at just under 10 billion.

How are we doing at feeding the world? Not so bad, actually: It’s estimated that worldwide production of foodstuffs must increase by an average of 1.75 percent between now and about 2050 when the global population is expected to peak at just under 10 billion. In recent years we’ve been averaging 1.73 percent annual growth, with developed nations outpacing less prosperous ones. The Economist issued a report a couple of years ago on the global food situation and how likely it is that we’ll be able to meet the goal of feeding the world in the decades ahead. The report was refreshingly positive, citing better management, improved technologies (including precision farming and genetically modified crops) as reasons for optimism.

Connections and connectivity

Like The Economist, I’m optimistic about the chances of agriculture feeding the world. One reason is the increased rate of technology transfer, thanks to the internet. A high percentage of the developed world is now “connected,” and agriculture is in the forefront. In the U.S. we’ve long been accustomed to an effective connection (electronically and otherwise) between research done at land grant universities and state Extension services. Research results are forwarded to the appropriate Extension educators at university and county levels and they transfer this information to farmers and agribusiness professionals by various means – farm visits, meetings, newsletters (print and electronic), etc. However, even in what we’d consider “developed” countries, this connectivity is largely missing.

I well remember years ago on a consulting trip to a western European nation learning that a professor at the nation’s top (public) agricultural college was willing to tell farmers what he knew about a particular technology – but at a price. I’ve visited almost a dozen nations that have significant agricultural production, and with the notable exception of Canada, via Ministry of Agriculture offices in each province, there isn’t anything like the researcher -farmer connection we have in the U.S.

The internet is changing that, particularly in developed countries with good internet access. Over half of the European population has an internet connection. More than 90 percent of Japanese and 85 percent of Australians have internet connections. The most connected nation, surprisingly, is Iceland, with 98 percent of its population having internet access. China is at 50 percent and increasing. However, most African nations have very poor internet access, with less than half the population, and in some nations less than 25.

There’s no information as to whether farmers in the various nations are more or less connected than the general populace, but I’m betting it’s more. A farmer in Spain can now learn the latest on alfalfa harvest management by entering that phrase into his laptop or smartphone.

Agricultural R&D

One area of great concern is public funding for agricultural research and development (R&D), which has stagnated for the past 40-plus years and in the past 10 to 15 years has actually declined using constant dollars (thus removing any impact from inflation). In contrast, the amount of money invested by the private sector has increased tremendously since 1970. In 1970, the money invested in R&D was about equal from public and private sources. But since then, public funding in R&D has declined while private funding has more than tripled. This change has been most notable since 2000. This benefits some nongovernmental organizations – the William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute for instance, which has seen its research income increase by multiples over the past 20 years – but there are drawbacks.

If a private company funds research, either at a land grant university or at Miner Institute, it’s almost always with a profit motive in mind. There’s nothing wrong with profit, but there are critical areas of research that at least in the short run don’t appear to benefit any particular agribusiness. An example is research involved in reducing the nutrients discharged by subsurface (tile) drainage systems, a project currently under way at Miner Institute via a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. This type of research isn’t as exciting to the general public as, for instance, new technologies in seed treatments that increase yield potential, but in the long run it has more potential impact on agricultural production and in protecting our environment.

The nation’s seed companies aren’t taking the “dollar drain” on public agricultural research funding sitting down. In 2017, for the first time there’s a checkoff of $1 per bag of alfalfa seed, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to support crop research at public universities (no administrative costs will be paid by checkoff dollars). Most seed companies are participating in this voluntary program.

Agricultural education and expertise

Land grant universities and other publicly funded agricultural colleges have also felt the pinch of reduced state and federal funding. This has affected both undergraduate teaching and the expertise available at these colleges to farmers and agribusiness. Over a period of about 10 years, one state university with which I’m familiar lost its Extension entomologist, plant pathologist, weed scientist and soil fertility specialist – partly, but not entirely, due to retirements. The last time I checked, none of these positions have been filled. Therefore when the university conducts refresher training courses for farmers wanting to maintain their Pesticide Applicator licenses there isn’t anyone left at that university to provide the training – it has to “import” expertise from other institutions. In some cases this is resulting in public-private partnerships, but this only makes up for a small part of the long-term dollar drain. There’s never been a better time for farmers to become active in influencing public policy decisions, locally and otherwise.