I had an opportunity to speak recently at a Farm City Week banquet in Perquimans County, N.C. It was fun — lots of good food and lots of good folks. As I was leaving, I asked one attendee how she thought the speech was received. I got a one word response — scary.
My speech wasn’t intended to be scary, but for me the numbers for the future of food just don’t add up. I guess that is a scary thing.
By all reasonable
accounts I can find, we should have about nine billion people on our planet by 2043. At the current rate of growth of agricultural production, I can’t figure out how we will have enough food to feed all those folks.
Perhaps the most daunting of numbers that don’t add up concerning food is that by the year 2043 farmers worldwide will have to produce as much food in one year as was produced between 10,000 BC and 2000. I’m far from a numbers guy or a statistician, but several of my analytical friends are confident that statistic is accurate.
It seems crystal clear to me that to reach this level of food production, farmers worldwide are going to need the whole population of the world urging them on to higher levels of production.
Instead, we continue to fight seemingly trivial — compared to mass starvation for our children and grandchildren — battles. Even when agriculture wins, we seem to generate more battles. At this time in history, when we need unbridled worldwide support and unity, we seem to get more outside intervention and continue to fight wars among ourselves within agriculture.
Global agriculture that doubled food production to go along with the doubling of the world’s population from 1950 to 2000 was built on a strong foundation. In the U.S. we had the strongest foundation of all.
During those years we had a system of agricultural research via our Land-Grant agricultural experiment stations and outreach via our Cooperative Extension System that was the envy of the world.
Now, when we need these battle tested institutions the most, we seem determined to tear them down. The loss of agricultural research dollars and Extension personnel has been alarming, to say the least, in recent years.
During those years we had a high level of political support at both the state and national levels. Now, a frighteningly low percentage of our political leaders have any kind of farm background. Farmers can’t win this war for food production without strong political support.
During the period of growth from 1950-2000 America’s farmers were young and vibrant and opportunities were abundant for hard-working men and women who wanted to farm for a living.
Now, the average age of the American farmer is 58 years old. Becoming a farmer without having family land or equipment to get started is rapidly moving from an American pipe-dream to an economic impossibility.
If we were feeding the world with corn, wheat, rice and potatoes, which comprised about 75 percent of all the calories consumed worldwide in the 1950s, the task of global food production would seem a bit less imposing to me.
Unfortunately, by 2025, when we are expected to have 8.5 billion people on our planet, the Middle Class of India or China will be larger than the total population of North America. By 2043, that same Middle Class (China or India) will be larger than the total population of North America and Western Europe combined.
As all of us middle class Americans know, we don’t like a diet dominated by potatoes, rice, corn and wheat. We like meat in our diets and every pound of meat equals roughly three pounds of grain, potatoes or rice.
I’ve learned the hard way over the course of my career that putting your name on a magazine or newspaper article brings a treasured few positive comments and a seemingly unending supply of critics.
So, for all my critics who write to criticize me for wanting to pollute the Chesapeake Bay into extinction or those who seem to think I’ve put every school-aged child in danger by speaking out against banning peanut butter in schools, look at the big picture.
We can’t afford to damage the infrastructure of agriculture in any way — not if we have any hope of feeding the world of the future. We fight battles every day over food production. Every one we lose takes food away from someone in the future.