This is how we can double food production by 2050

Vegetables from local farmers are seen at the Alexandria Farmers Market in Alexandria, Va.
Greg Nash

It’s a collision course: We’ll need to feed another 2 billion people by mid-century, even as climate change threatens our ability to produce food. Georgia, Florida and other Southeastern states must play a central role if we’re to feed the world and simultaneously protect the planet.

If we fail to rise to this challenge, we risk a multitude of problems driven by hungry people. And a new report released from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change only heightens the concern.

Our best chance to get off this collision course is through innovation. Scientists are developing technologies with the goal of doubling food production without clearing rainforests or increasing demand on dwindling water supplies.

The Southeast bears a special responsibility to lead the way in addressing this grand challenge. The climate in Southeastern states allows for two or three crops to be grown a year, and there is plenty of water. Florida’s tropical and subtropical climate, in particular, could make its agricultural advances more applicable in regions of the world that share similar climates and that are projected to be among the world’s fastest-growing regions in the next 30 years.

Europe’s focus on sustainability through organic agriculture will limit yields. Australia, China and India’s dearth of rainfall make an increase in food production more challenging. In North America, the northern climes’ short growing season caps food production, and we can see starkly in the “bathtub rings” on Lake Mead and Lake Powell how threatened the West’s water supply is.

In my view, the responsibility for innovating in food production falls squarely on those of us in the Southeast — Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Alabama.

Until now, agriculture’s success has hinged on cheap labor, good government policy, the inexpensive cost of such things as fertilizer and transportation, on mechanization and, frankly, luck. But the labor pool is drying up. Costs have gone up dramatically due to supply chain glitches and inflation. Yield increases since the 1990s have been slow and steady but are not enough to double food production by 2050.

That’s why agriculture is embracing technology, specifically artificial intelligence, in what is widely referred to as the fourth revolution in food production, following advances from fertilization, mechanization and genetics.

The automotive industry, the airline industry, banking, healthcare — they’ve all adopted artificial intelligence and have used it widely for at least a decade. Agriculture has not been as quick to do so. In some ways, this lag creates a great opportunity for the future.

Artificial intelligence now is being deployed in myriad ways in agriculture. For example, autonomous robots being tested in experimental fields at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences are targeting and spraying weeds and pests; they also can selectively apply fertilizer across a field. Drones can survey and analyze the health of fields to help farmers contain and head off diseases and infestations. Robots are successfully picking strawberries in experimental fields, determining whether a strawberry is ripe and how much pressure to apply to pick it without crushing it.

Whether it’s environmental quality improvement, lowering input costs or relieving humans of some of the back-breaking work of the really hard part of agriculture, artificial intelligence is that next wave that is going to allow these things to happen.

The role of land-grant universities — a group that in the southeast includes the University of Florida, University of Georgia, Fort Valley State University, Tuskegee University, Clemson University, and the University of Tennessee — is to perfect and de-risk these innovations and then help private partners develop them into affordable technologies.

In some cases, we see possibilities for new businesses, such as an Uber for expensive equipment such as strawberry pickers that would allow farmers to schedule and rent machines and expertise as needed.

Land-grant universities also have a role in bringing farmers and sustainability organizations together to increase adoption of climate-smart practices. In Florida, we are working with such groups as Solutions from the Land, the Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited to implement practices that lead to reduced use of fertilizers, pesticides and water. Together, we are showing farmers what the future looks like and how these practices can, at the same time, enhance their profitability.

The bottom line is the Southeastern states have a tremendous responsibility to make sure the rest of the world doesn’t go hungry in the decades ahead. Technological innovation will allow us to do that.

J. Scott Angle is the former director of the Agriculture Department’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. He now serves as the University of Florida’s Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources and leader of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Tags Agriculture and the environment American farming Artificial intelligence Climate change and agriculture farming technology food cost food production Technology Water supply

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