Jolley: How long will we be able to produce what we eat?

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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.

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MT  |  January, 28, 2013 at 08:55 AM

How is your memory? What were the last 3 industry-revolutionizing innovations that sprang from state universities? When were those successfully commercialized and adopted? These days private industry does most (if not all) of the meaningful ag research, applied and otherwise. Meanwhile the public sector, when it does anything, "studies" how to hitch up those mules you speak of, "investigates" how hobby farmers can amuse themselves crawling around in the precious mud within the glowing shelter of plastic tunnels, that sort of nonsense. Oh, and they bust their humps reciting urban myths and anti-ag phobias -- you know, how farming has destroyed the planet, how great vegans are, why we should never ever cut any more trees, how pristine wilderness has been destroyed by evil man, and on it goes. There may still be some of the well-intentioned old guard reporting for work each day at our old public research stations but they no longer direct research or policy efforts. Public funded research has run its course and has been fully infiltrated by anti-farm dreamers. Time to shut off the money spigot when it is only sustaining anti-agriculture activists. Let donation-rich organizations like HSUS and PETA fund the handwringing faux scientists. I will continue to purchase farm inputs from successful companies whose research has improved my operation...and that shows real promise of continued improvement.

California  |  January, 29, 2013 at 07:13 AM

How do we assure our tax dollars support serious research into ag technology? Jasper makes a valid point about the mediocre quality and nefarious purpose of most public research these days. Why not establish a funding stream dedicated entirely to modern ag tech? I could support funding that so long as I am assured none of my hard earned tax dollars are siphoned off to some granola crunching ideologue with an agenda to eventually put me out of business.

kansas  |  January, 29, 2013 at 04:08 PM

My memory is just fine, thank you. Other than stuck in a dark place about the great work our universities do, how is yours, Jaspar and Marilyn? Frankly, I'm getting tired of the continuing attacks on our schools and the work done with government funding and the flip side praise of private industry. Both do excellent jobs; both screw up big time. When we start issuing blanket statements about any resource the first thing we have to consider is this fact: You are wrong.

kansas  |  January, 29, 2013 at 04:08 PM

My memory is just fine, thank you. Other than stuck in a dark place about the great work our universities do, how is yours, Jaspar and Marilyn? Frankly, I'm getting tired of the continuing attacks on our schools and the work done with government funding and the flip side praise of private industry. Both do excellent jobs; both screw up big time. When we start issuing blanket statements about any resource the first thing we have to consider is this fact: You are wrong.

MT  |  January, 29, 2013 at 05:37 PM

OK Chuck, blanket statements are bad...but blanket funding is good? You can't believe that, can you? I insist on targeted funding. That can't seem to be accomplished on the public dole. Market-driven research is the essence of private enterprise...and all I have to do is purchase the products I think have a future for my farm. Couldn't be easier, couldn't be more certain. We all see university hacks like Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle. They may not represent every university staffer but what chance is there to starve those hateful fakers out when they dip into the public pot with both hands right alongside the few genuine research scientists who maintain unbiased programs? I think we need to defund all of it and start over. Heck, private industry has already cherrypicked the finest talent from our schools. Ever heard of "brain drain"?

Kansas  |  January, 29, 2013 at 05:52 PM

The feds don't 'blanket fund' universities. They fund some very important research and, unfortunately, some insanely idiotic research. Most of the latter, by the way, are pork barrel stuff shoved into unrelated bills by some of our sleaziest reps and senators. University funding, by the way, comes from both government and private enterprise. My point? We need both and more of it. For every attack on the nonsense uttered by the Pollan's there are attacks on Monsanto and other corporate entities that are viewed as less than honorable. I'll be writing a story or two in the future about some of the most productive research done by universities as well as who funded that research.

MT  |  January, 29, 2013 at 06:25 PM

Well, I don't labor under any delusions about the honorable intent of your evil Monsantos but I am content to buy state-of-the-art product from them that gets the job done here on the farm. They may try to rape me but they do genuinely seem to want to keep me in business. Now, your darling Pollans, on the other hand, have nothing to offer from the lofty pulpits deep within their Ivory Towers that helps me get things done around here from one season to the next. Quite deliberately to the contrary they work tirelessly to destroy me and my way of life. And I often despair the Pollans are capable of doing far more permanent damage than the Monsantos are capable of undoing. The ubiquitous smearing of your pragmatic Monsantos by your preaching Pollans reassures my simple-minded method...the enemy of my enemies is my friend (but don't turn your back on either of them!). We look forward to your in-depth workup of the state of ag tech research and how it gets supported Chuck. There is probably a new and improved role for universities but we need you to tease apart the useful from the destructive if you are going to convince us we should be coughing up serious cash to pay for it. Remember it is your Pollan academics who keep up the pressure to hitch up those mules, not your Monsanto drummers. Maybe if Monsanto breeds some new kind of super-mule, eh? Keep up the good fight Chuck. There's a farm bill to be hashed out and that means an opportunity to straighten out some fiscal priorities for food production on a global scale.

Iowa  |  January, 30, 2013 at 08:04 AM

It comes down to finding out how much of fed research is looking at feeding the planet and how much is focused on regulating the bejeezus out of us. Then there is the fed money that goes to pork like organic and biodynamic fluff. I bet we could live just fine without the feds trying to help us so much.

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