How will farmers feed the world's population 30 years from now?
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Most of us have been witness to some pretty incredible changes during our lifetime. If you’re a Baby Boomer, you’ve gone from watching black-and-white TVs with three or four channels to ultra HD sets with more viewing options than one could possibly ever need. Generation Xers were there to embrace the power of the personal computer, while Millennials have mastered the art of the smartphone, spitting out texts and tweets so fast that it would make an American Old West gunslinger proud.

While these electronic devices are great examples of technological change, you might be surprised to learn that another well-known industry has seen its share of innovation, too. I’m talking about agriculture. Now I understand that to some, agriculture conjures up that iconic image found in the famous Grant Wood painting American Gothic.  But in reality, some of the most cutting-edge research being conducted anywhere today is playing out right on the farm.

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First, let’s take a moment to see how far modern agriculture has come. In 1950, the average farmer fed 27 people. Today, the number of people fed per farm has risen to more than 150. When viewed over the course of human history, that increase is about as close to exponential growth as you’ll find in any industry. What’s most astonishing is that this incredible output has occurred without any corresponding increase in farmland. How? Today’s farmers are producing much more food on the same amount of land because of the innovative tools they are able to use to dramatically increase food productivity.

 

And this increase in farm productivity has come not a moment too soon. While the global population took more than 120 years to grow from one billion in 1800 to two billion in 1927, we have seen at least one billion more people added to the world’s total about every 12 to 14 years since 1960. Experts predict that our population will reach 9.6 billion by 2050. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. To meet that future demand, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that agricultural production will have to increase by 60 percent.

The work of feeding a fast-growing population can’t be done alone.  It demands collaboration from various sectors, communities and voices. This was the backdrop for the 2017 AgVocacy Forum in San Antonio. Growers, chefs, food policy experts, scientists, and others had an open dialogue about how to meet the needs of the under- and well-fed population today and tomorrow with the resources growers need as they endeavor to protect the very environment in which they live and work. The good news is that we are making incredible progress.

Innovations in seeds, advances in crop protection and the advent of digital farming are changing the face of modern agriculture and would have been unimaginable to most growers’ grandparents. Conservation tillage and other management practices are making farming more sustainable by cutting fuel emissions, reducing soil erosion, and conserving water use while also increasing the biodiversity of beneficial organisms, which thrive in today’s healthier farm environments. Digital technologies and data management will enable the rise of “smart farms,” where farmers can use highly customized prescription treatments to manage weeds, pests and disease in crops.

We are living at a time of exponential technological growth — “the speed of now” — and while it may be exhilarating, it can also be volatile and make one feel a little out of control. Adjusting to all of this isn’t easy. According to Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, we need to be constantly learning and adapting to change. This requires plenty of collaboration, including convening at events such as the AgVocacy Forum to have real dialogue about the challenges we face in a complex world. It also means that we must put people ahead of products by empowering them to manage these new technologies responsibly for the greater good.

If one subscribes to the thinking of Heraclitus, change is always the norm, never the exception. We may choose to ignore it, but it is far better to embrace change and collaborate so that we can help shape our future together. In this age of accelerated change, we’ve grown accustomed to the frequent rollout of “new and improved” versions of technologies that make our lives more enjoyable.

Why should we expect any less from the way we produce our food? Our future hinges on our ability to grow crops smarter, stronger and safer than ever before. Let’s embrace the change that is sure to come and perhaps we’ll even enjoy the ride.

Adrian Percy is head of research for the crop science division of Bayer.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.