Farmers, specialists plan for U.S. responsibility of feeding growing population
November 17, 2016
Brianna McBride was just 16 when she first heard of the pressure agriculture producers feel to feed a growing world population.
When she first learned about it, the 18-year-old Windsor High School student thought it sounded overwhelming, scary even. The challenge is feeding nine billion people by the year 2050 as developing countries see growing populations and need more food.
Feeding that many people would require producers to double the food supply.
"At the same time though, it's a really exciting time to be a part of agriculture because this goal of feeding nine billion sparks interest and innovation in the ag industry," McBride said.
Indeed, McBride wants to pursue a career in food science once she graduates. That way, she'll have some influence to help to feed the world, she said. Growing up in a neighborhood on a two-acre lot with about seven acres of pasture in Eaton, Colo., she's familiar with the uneasy co-existence between urban areas and agriculture.
The problem has a movement and even a hashtag, #FeedThe9, and agricultural educators and leaders also see it as a way to engage students such as McBride and make them aware of the role agriculture has in the world.
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Only about 10 of the 300 kids in the Windsor High School FFA chapter live on farms, said Jarrod Bessire, an FFA advisor at the school. Farm and ranch families make up only about 2 percent of the U.S. population. So the challenge is to get most of those kids to relate to agriculture. #FeedThe9 gives them a chance to do that.
"We understand not everyone lives on a farm or ranch," Bessire said, "but everyone has to eat."
It's a challenge those same students, regardless of their knowledge of agriculture, will have to figure out. They will need more like McBride who want to make a career out of solving the problem. Food always matters, and it will continue to matter when the world population continues to climb but resources shrink worldwide and are taxed by other challenges such as a changing climate and the need for living space as well as growing space.
"We've known about the problem for a long time," Bessire said. "But this is the true generation of people who will have to solve the problem when they're in the prime of their careers."
Despite low commodity prices and destructive weather this year, Weld County producers still feel the pressure to produce more.
"That's on every producer's mind," said Joyce Kelly, executive director of the Colorado Pork Producers council.
The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs projects the world population will reach 8.5 billion by the year 2030, 9.7 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100.
The largest countries in the world — Nigeria, Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Brazil, Mexico, the United States and the Russian Federation — are still growing, many of them rapidly. The population in Nigeria, according to the UN's website, is projected to surpass that of the United States. By 2050, six countries are expected to exceed 300 million in population, including China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan and the United States (the U.S., in fact, is already there at 318 million).
"We have a healthy respect for the issue at hand," Bessire said. "If we can get out in front of it, we can keep it as a healthy respect rather than a fear."
Increasing production in other countries will put more strain on the environment. Clearing out more natural land to make farms or feedlots means more deforestation and habitat encroachment. According to NASA's website, the single biggest direct cause of tropical deforestation is conversion to cropland and pasture. This includes the development of roads to transport goods.
A developing middle class probably won't be happy with a diet of grain and rice. Dawn Thilmany, a professor in the Agriculture and Resource Economics Department at Colorado State University said those growing populations, especially in second world countries, will demand a bigger livestock industry to curb their craving for meat.
"When people get more money, they start buying more protein products, more meat and they use more resources," Thilmany said. "Just like us, second-world countries have a pretty limited landmass."
With development already posing an environmental threat, clearing out more natural land for livestock as well as agriculture will continue to strain resources such as clean water and grain.
Kelly, who farms in Greeley, Colo., said there's already tension between agricultural and urban entities for water.
"That demand for land and houses to live on, the demand for water to use and water to drink can create crippling pressure on agriculture," Kelly said.
Pierce, Colo., felt the squeeze of that demand when the city of Thornton, Colo., bought 20,000 acres of irrigated farmland in Weld and Larimer counties in 1986. Like other metropolitan communities, Thornton, which is about 60 miles south of Pierce, knew it would need more water for the growing population. So, it bought up farmland for the water rights attached to it. Greeley also has a system where farmers can lease their water rights to the city when times are tight.
Robert Sakata, president of Sakata Farms in Brighton, Colo., said water is almost like a crop itself now. With increased urban demand for water, producers feel it's as valuable as most crops, if not more valuable.
WHY THE U.S.?
The expectation that the U.S. will help feed the bulk of the growing population worldwide isn't lost on local farmers. There's reasons for that. The U.S. has environmental regulations, and our farmers typically care about preservation, Thilmany said.
"(The U.S.) has a very strong traditional agriculture system that has tried very hard to be savvy about adapting technology," Thilmany said. "Now they're doing precision agriculture. They're trying to maximize the yields."
Farmers take conservation seriously. Many seek out crop varieties that will do well with less space and fertilizer, and water conservation remains a top priority.
Jerry Cooksey, a Roggen, Colo., farmer, said he tries not to waste a drop of water on his crops. Cooksey anticipates plant breeders will continue to come out with better seeds, and they'll have better yields. The varieties will continue to improve as the years go on, Cooksey said.
Amanda Countryman, assistant professor of agriculture and resource economics at Colorado State University, said the U.S. also has the infrastructure and the market in place to support a higher level of production.
"We have the supply chain in place for a good, efficient protein market," Countryman said. "Brazil is working really hard to build better infrastructure, but we already have great production technology."
That infrastructure helps reduce food waste. In developing countries, food often goes bad before people get their hands on it, either because it goes bad in transit or isn't stored well.
Developing countries are working to establish better food handling, food safety and food storage practices, Countryman said. But the U.S. is already there. "We have the safest, most abundant food supply," Countryman said.
Beyond technical efficiencies, Kelly said farmers are proud to be feeding the world.
"We don't want countries who have ulterior motives doing it," Kelly said. "We know it'll be right and it will be safe."
HOW DO WE DO IT?
Sakata grows fruits and vegetables. He said he first started hearing about the challenge to feed nine billion people at various conventions he's attended over the years. To meet the demand, he thinks farmers will have to do more with less, as they always have.
"That's always been the way we've kept up," Sakata said. "Especially during years when fuel and fertilizer prices skyrocket."
Much of it will be about maximizing returns in the allotted space we have. More crops at a greater volume, in other words, on less land.
"It's kind of exciting," Sakata said. "We're seeing some of the new technology now."
Some examples of that new technology include indoor production, which now allows for extended season, and vertical growing. Both are catching on.
"You always have to keep your eye open for opportunities," Sakata said.
Countryman said the world will have to address resistance to some production technologies, like genetically modified commodities. To increase production on increasingly limited land and reduce environmental damage caused by deforestation, she said, it's something people will have to accept.
The ironic part of solving the problem of feeding nine billion people is the market isn't rewarding producers for their efforts. Commodities prices are as low, comparatively, as they've ever been. Many producers are already pumping up their yields in an effort to make some money off their products, and that's drove the prices down even more.
CSU's economics experts and Greeley producers alike agreed expanded trade agreements would impact their ability to feed more people overseas and make a living at the same time.
"Trade is going to be so important," Sakata said. "We just had visitors from Japan here last week. There's such a positive image of U.S. products. They see a value in promoting that."
Producers still advocate for the passage of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement or a similar trade agreement, which would give them access to markets with reduced or eliminated tariffs. As it stands, those high tariffs are a big barrier to producers selling their crops competitively overseas.
"Imports in other countries will become relatively more affordable for consumers in those countries," Countryman said. "U.S. products will become cheaper, so they become more competitive in those markets."
It would also help address of the dichotomy between U.S. overproduction, and thus, low commodity prices, and the need to produce more for the world's growing population.
"It would have an immediate affect on our market," Kelly said. "We're talking about a boon the pork industry that has not been seen for decades."
The squeeze of low commodity prices for overproduction and the pressure to produce more puts producers in a bind.
"I believe firmly that the agricultural spirit lives on," Bessire said. "When times get tough like this, people in the industry know how to tighten their belts and get through it. I believe that spirit will over come. That's what it's known for." ❖