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The Inputs Needed to Feed a Growing Population

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Hurricane Sandy showed us in a dramatic way just how vulnerable we are to a disruption in the availability of our most basic human needs: food, water and shelter.

We agricultural producers must consider the need to feed (and clothe) a world human population expected to reach well over nine billion people in the next 30 or 40 years. An estimated 70% increase in current production will be needed.

We need more farmers, and they need productive land and water. We now lack young farmers, and urban populations and other interest groups compete for land and water.

We also need to produce this food and fiber in a way that cares for natural resources. The future depends on wise use of these resources.

Within agriculture, debates rage over commercial production vs. organic, and local vs. “food miles.” (A local egg at a Farmer’s Market may have gone more miles, relatively, than one of hundreds shipped to the grocery store.) While studies show that organic or local foods may not offer additional nutritional value, many consumers prefer them.

A divide also exists between crops whose production or profitability is enhanced by genetic modification, adding traits like disease resistance or drought resistance. While studies show that such foods are generally safe, many people do not like the idea of “Frankenfood.”

Studies also show that crop rotation programs are usually better for soil health and long-term resource management. This seems like a logical program for farmers to follow, but it is not always the most profitable or even profitable at all. This is a case where eco-system service payments might allow the better farming practice to prevail. Production costs of agricultural products are often higher when more sustainable practices are used, and should be reflected in overall food costs.

Safe, nutritious food produced in a sustainable manner to feed a couple billion more people than the seven billion or so that already reside on this planet—that is a tall order to fill. Add to this the fact that many people today are “food insecure,” so it is not a matter of simple math to add extra nutrition. Many people today who may be getting by nutritionally wish to improve their diets by adding more protein—mainly meat and milk products.

The earth contains a limited amount of arable land capable of producing crops. Add to this grazing ground, which allows livestock to convert grasses to protein. This increases the food production capacity, by converting a resource so that it can feed people.

An estimated 30% of food produced is wasted. This waste ranges from crops not harvested due to lack of labor to weather damage, transportation loss or plate waste. Reducing waste is an obvious place to start making more food available, but it is not a simple problem to solve.

To increase production, we need all parts of agriculture—from the backyard gardener to corporate farms that grow large amounts of food efficiently. Most of all, we need farmers.  Farmers need land, water, sunshine and profitability. We most need a new generation of farmers to grow food for the world.

Sharon and Pat O'Toole Sharon and Pat O'Toole (
Ranchers, Ladder Livestock Co.

View more posts by Sharon and Pat O'Toole

1 comment on “The Inputs Needed to Feed a Growing Population”

  1. Debby Davidson
    Posted Thursday, November 29, 2012 at 10:47:03 AM

    At no other time in history has farming held such great importance in global wellfare. Only 6 countries in the world can feed themselves; another way to word this is only 6 countries feed the world. With the droughts and weather problems in the United States this year, without doubt the demands for the basic need of food will increase. Nice article!

The views and opinions expressed in AgChllenge2050 blog posts are solely the opinions of the authors, and not those of Farm Foundation, NFP.