Hunger Games: How Farmers Are Working to Feed a Growing Population
Hunger Is it possible to exploit unused land, or perhaps limit population growth?
Answer: The reality is that the within 38 years, there will be about 2 billion more people on the planet. And though available natural resources—land, water, and soil---are fixed, there are many ways to expand capacity, protect the environment and feed a hungry world.
Farmers confront challenges
When American famers were surveyed about the biggest challenges they faced this year, they cited climate and weather problems as number one. Other challenges included weed resistance, disease prevention and people resources. But famers and agricultural scientists contend that the problem is much bigger than simply weathering a tough year. It’s the long-term forecast that has them concerned. Overwhelmingly, the most pressing concern is population growth and food supply.
“We need to develop our scientific talent at the university level. There are not enough qualified scientists, crop biotechnologists, breeders, and agronomists. Technology, after all, is driven by humans.”
According to Adrian Percy, vice president, North America, Bayer CropScience, “The world population is growing rapidly. We just passed 7 billion and we are quickly heading towards 9 billion. Agriculture has to double its output in the next 40 to 50 years, and the way to do it is by leveraging technology.”
People who understand agriculture know that technological advances during the past 50 years have been a major boon for farmers, who have successfully been able to feed the growing American population---and export crops abroad. Percy says, “Agriculture is one of the best kept secrets in America. It was not mentioned even once in the presidential debates, but it plays a significant role in the economy.”
According to Percy, there are numerous technologies and processes that can increase production, including chemicals to control diseases, high-quality, disease-resistant seeds that are tolerant to environmental stressors, and biologics that lead to increased yields. Increasing production is collaborative process that also involves equipment and fertilizer manufacturers and modern irrigation processes to preserve water.
The American farmer on the technology frontier
Trey Hill, a 4th generation farmer, who owns Harborview Farms in Kent County, Maryland, is the perfect example of an American farmer who uses modern agricultural equipment and technology to increase production of his crops---corn, soybeans and winter wheat.
Hill explains, “We use almost all GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds, which allow us to grow more corn in drought conditions—a common problem in Maryland. We are also using GPS (global positioning systems) to steer the sprayers, tractors and combines. The operator literally does not have to touch the wheel. GPS helps reduce the overlap. We are able to fertilize the crops without double dosing them. The net benefit is both environmental and economic. And now we’re moving towards all new equipment that meets tier-4 emission standards and helps with environmental integrity.”
Hill is especially proud of the recent installation of a 200-watt solar array to power all of the grain silos on his farm. “My goal is to move towards a sustainable approach towards production agriculture,” he says.
Countering the ‘technology is bad’ rap
Despite Hill’s view of himself as “an environmental steward,” many would view him as an enemy of environmentally sound practices, because he uses GMO seeds. His response: “We were early adopters of GMO. I read all of the journals and so far no one has come up with anything that says it’s bad. The GMOs do need some tweaking, but I don’t think they are responsible for obesity or bad health. A lot of things get misreported in the consumer press. For example, corn and soybeans are healthy products---and GMO wheat does not even exist.”
"We need to develop our scientific talent at the university level. There are not enough qualified scientists, crop biotechnologists, breeders, and agronomists."
In fact, when surveyed, famers cited customers’ negative perceptions of technology as a significant challenge. However, Percy feels that as people become better aware of the scientific rigor that drives agricultural production, they can better appreciate that human health is always an important consideration.
More talent, more food
Towards that end, Percy says, “We need to develop our scientific talent at the university level. There are not enough qualified scientists, crop biotechnologists, breeders, and agronomists. Technology, after all, is driven by humans.”
It all comes down to supply versus demand—human talent to drive technology, and technology to drive production. “The goal is to increase yields and get the most out of each acre, so we can feed a growing population. We have a lot to do in a short period of time,” Percy says.