Agriculture: The grand challenge

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Brookings, S.D. - Spring is a season of hope. It is appropriate that the first day of spring occurs during National Agriculture Week, March 17-23. It is a time to recognize the abundance provided by agriculture, and celebrate the opportunity it holds for South Dakota and humanity.

As farmers once again move into the fields to plant crops, and also begin calving and lambing season, it's important to keep in mind the challenges ahead. The "Grand Challenge of the 21st Century" is to produce enough food, fiber and fuel for more than 9.5 billion people by 2050, using less land, less water and less energy than is used today, and to do it in a sustainable manner.

This challenge reaches beyond simply feeding 2.5 billion more people. Globally, the standard of living is increasing, and diets are improving in nearly all corners of the world. The higher standard of living means that more people globally are including animal protein in their diets, increasing demand for beef, pork and turkey that are grown and processed here in South Dakota. Yet ultimately, we must double food production to meet growing populations and higher demand from global consumers.

We've come a long way. In the 1960s, one third of the world's population was starving or near starvation. Each American farmer fed 25 people. From the tragedy of millions was born the Green Revolution. Brilliant agricultural scientists like Norman Borlaug dedicated their lives to unlocking the secrets of seeds, and ultimately increasing the production of basic foods of the world - like wheat, rice and maize (corn).

Tragically, hunger persists today, but on a smaller scale. One American farmer now feeds 155 people, and one-eighth of the world's population is starving or near starvation. By making tough decisions and focusing our precious and limited resources into agricultural science and food production, we have been able to address global hunger in a very meaningful way.

The drought of 2012 earned a place in history books as one of the hottest and driest on record in South Dakota and the Midwest. More than a quarter century earlier, the region experienced a similar drought of epic proportion. The drought of 2012 and 1974 were nearly equal in their potential for devastation.

But there is one critical difference: science. In 2012, science-driven changes in farming produced an additional $3.1 billion dollars in South Dakota crop yields that were not possible in 1974.

Research breakthroughs have made it possible to grow crops with substantially less water. It's a nearly equal combination of better crop genetics, and better science-driven management techniques. More than half of the scientific breakthroughs are in the form of management practices used by farmers, and are the product of SDSU's research efforts and that from our land grant university partners.

Science helps us all take small steps. Sometimes the steps occur over generations making it difficult to see and understand the value of what has been accomplished. But we know that the return on investment for every dollar in agricultural research and Extension in the land-grant universities of the North Central Region of the United States has been $15 to $25. This has benefited not only farmers, but also agricultural based businesses and communities across our state.

As dry as South Dakota fields were in 2012, the producers using no-till farming practices actually had the equivalent of two inches more rain per acre they did in 1974. Corn yields in the drought of 2012 were 61 bushels an acre higher than were possible during the drought of 1974. Soybean yields were eight bushels an acre higher. Spring and winter wheat yields were 18 bushels an acre higher.

As demand for agricultural products grows stronger, agriculture will continue to be the economic foundation of South Dakota. We can see the impact of agricultural growth in communities across our region in the form of new or remodeled food processing plants, bio-fuel plants, and investments in infrastructure. With continued strategic investments in research, the Grand Challenge will be met, and with it will come enormous opportunities for South Dakota.

Governor Daugaard, state legislators, members of the Board of Regents, commodity groups and agricultural leaders have worked together to increase funding of agricultural research at South Dakota State University by nearly $1.5 million next year. Over the years, this investment will add millions more to our state's economy. We appreciate the increased funding from the state of South Dakota. Continued investments like this will be how our state harvests the opportunities of the future.

It is indeed a new day for agriculture, and with it many challenges, but also with the promise of new opportunities for us all.

Source: Barry Dunn, Dean of the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, and Director of SDSU Extension.


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