Not long, I’m afraid. Two factoids have been floating around the ag community for a few years: (1) We will have to produce about twice as much food by 2050 to feed the fast-growing world population, and (2) We waste at least a third and maybe as much as half of the food we produce.
Working hard to solve point #2 will help but certainly not cure the problem. Those of us in the ‘developed’ world will always buy more than we can consume, and our monthly refrigerator/pantry clean-outs to rid ourselves of products past their ‘use by’ dates will always put an alarming amount of perfectly good food in the trash bin. Shipping food to economically stressed locations around the world to help feed millions faced with the hard luck of famine - or what’s euphemistically called internal strife - will always be a good deed held hostage to poor distribution channels and petty politics.
So food insecurity, the more politically correct term that now describes starvation on a massive scale, will always be with us. We can work hard to make it less ubiquitous but we can never eliminate it. What can we do?
Dr. H. Russell Cross, Professor and Head of the Department of Animal Science at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Texas A&M, and former top gun at FSIS, presented some interesting facts to the audience at the International Livestock Congress in Denver a few days ago. One of his most painful points was public funding of research for U.S. animal agriculture has been shrinking for years. In fact, funding for all U.S. ag research is at an all-time low.
Those research dollars fund advancements in technology, an area that many foodies abhor. Better technology, though, is one of the necessary tools we need to help grow our way out of a global food crunch and escape the widespread civil unrest caused by people desperately trying to feed their starving families.
Small family farms will always be with us, but, just as we can no longer rely on mules to plow the South 40, we can’t ignore the necessary advances in mechanization and hybrids (animal and seed) and the production improvements they ultimately bring to the kitchen table. Let’s add two more limitations to the mix, too. Land for agriculture is shrinking as more of it is being converted to creeping urbanization. Water, our most important natural resource, is becoming scarcer as drought continues to plague farmland around the world. And pressure on natural aquifers as a replacement for rain continues to be a ‘drain’ on what was once thought to be an almost limitless resource.
Dr. Cross quoted some troubling numbers about the scope of those declining research dollars. Animal-health companies invest less than a third of their profits for research and development. Commodity companies spend less than 0.5 percent. Ag schools receive less 20 percent of their funding from the states, a figure that has been steadily declining for years. Federal funds have been drying up, too, with only $22 million tagged for food-animal research.
As the U.S. not-so-slowly backs out of investing in the future of agriculture, one of the truly bright spots of American productivity, who is stepping in to pick up the slack? Brazil is spending more than twice what we’re willing to invest and China is reportedly upping even Brazil’s aggressive investment by a factor of fifteen.
We’re looking at a future when China will replace the U.S. as the world’s bread basket and a future when American agriculture falls into a lowly spot comparable to our international position on education – in the second tier of nations.
The long-lasting recession is certainly one of the main causes for critical investments in the future of American agriculture to dry up almost as quickly and as devastatingly as drought-stricken crop land in central Oklahoma. But we rallied in the mid-fifties when the Russians launched the first satellite, an event that shook us out of our post World War II complacency. We invested heavily in our schools and in important, mostly government funded, research and development.
The result was a surge in our economy that cemented our position as the world’s leading nation culturally, financially and militarily. It took just a few short decades for the rest of the world to shake off the destructiveness of WWII and catch up, though. It took just another decade to be surpassed by a few of the countries we helped get back on their feet. If we are to regain our leadership role, we have to have another “Sputnik moment” soon.
Chuck Jolley is a free lance writer, based in Kansas City, who covers a wide range of ag industry topics for Vance Publishing.