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No farmer left behind

No farmer left behind as we strive to feed our growing world

“Sustainable intensification” is a new buzz phrase that describes a strategy of growing more food without increasing tilled acreage or the food animal population, thus minimizing agriculture’s carbon footprint, or impact on the environment.

As farmers make up only about 2% of our population, it’s critical that all farmers get on board, producing nutritional, high quality food efficiently, using environmentally-safe, animal-friendly practices. And it’s important that everyone else supports farmers.

Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund recently spoke of the “sustainable intensification” mindset as a means for meeting the needs of the rapidly expanding world population, which is expected to exceed nine billion by 2050. Experts predict that a population of 9.6 billion will require 70% more food than earth’s current inhabitants. So, says Clay, the challenge is to produce as much food from now until 2050 as has been produced in the last 8,000 years. This must be accomplished, he adds, on the same amount of land, using fewer resources.

Evidence shows that American farmers have made a good start in this direction. Greenhouse gas production has stayed flat in U.S. agriculture since 1990, according to Paul Vincelli, a plant pathologist at the University of Kentucky, despite rapidly increasing production of livestock and major food crops.

Jude Kapper of Washington State University and others have shown that the carbon footprint per unit of agricultural production has dropped significantly for the past 50 years. This has reduced agriculture’s impact on climate change.

However, there is one fly in the ointment: Crop yields are much lower in third world countries, due to limited access to biotechnology and other science-based practices. Farmers in these countries require additional cultivation to grow food, leading them to have as much as three times the environmental impact as their counterparts in developed nations.

The American farmer is the world’s best bet for meeting the world’s future nutritional needs. Yet many American farmers seem to have an inferiority complex. They overlook their significant technological and productivity advantage when they look at a country like Brazil, which appears to have a bodacious production potential for soybeans, ethanol and beef. (I picked up the word “bodacious” from watching  “Duck Dynasty” before patriarch Phil got more real than a reality show would allow.)

While Brazil has the land to grow a bountiful, market-influencing soybean crop, Brazilian farmers aren’t able to capitalize on “sustainable intensification” to the extent of American farmers. Production levels fluctuate greatly from one region of Brazil to the next due to lack of credit financing, technology, transportation infrastructure and farmer-owned cooperatives, which negotiate input costs and market prices. About one-fifth of the regional variation in production is attributed to lack of credit. Three quarters of large operators have adequate access to credit, compared to only a fourth of small operators.

Although the Brazilians are rapidly improving their country’s agricultural infrastructure, they continue to lag decades behind U.S. agribusiness. Since 1990, the average rate of global agricultural growth has slowed — but not so for American agricultural growth, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service. Improvement in U.S. productivity accounts for more than three-fourths of the total growth in global agricultural output. By boosting crop and livestock productivity on existing land, American farmers are saving forests and reducing greenhouse gases, while feeding the world’s burgeoning population.

As American consumers buck the idea of increasing livestock density to satisfy meat, milk and protein demands, the World Resources Institute (WRI) predicts that increased livestock production is essential to the world’s future. The WRI predicts that demand for pastureland will increase, accounting for more than half of all agricultural expansion from the 1960s to 2050. Global beef consumption is predicted to grow 80% by 2050. To meet this demand improved pasture productivity practices must be implemented. These include rotational grazing and integration of shade trees and nitrogen-fixing shrubbery in pasture systems.

Further, crop farmers must close the gap between current and potential crop yields to bring their performance up to the levels of “sustainable intensification” — or convert under-performing acreage to pastureland for food animal operations. As Helen Clark of the U.N. Development Program puts it, we should take a “leave no farmer behind” approach, using technology and modern farming practices to close the gap and achieve sustainable intensification.

It’s time to stop the backbiting between consumers, traditional and organic farmers, processors and activists and put modern agricultural technology to work for the sake of our world’s future.

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