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Tools needed to feed 9 billion

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The word is out that we may have to feed 9 billion people—about 2 billion more than today—by 2050, and we have to do so with less arable land, and fewer water resources in an environment of greater weather extremes such as droughts and floods. While there exists a moral need to overcome hunger in some areas, the irony of obesity is a major problem in others.

We are expected to do this in a time when concerns about what is in our food and water supply are appropriately greater than ever before. Many of the agricultural tools and practices that have been common in the past are being challenged and/or coming under increasingly rigorous regulatory oversight.

In developed countries especially, a general lack of appreciation for and understanding of food production practices contributes to conflicts between consumers and producers, with misinformation often rampant and manipulated. Overuse of antimicrobials in human medicine is redirected to attacks on the use of those same tools to protect the health of food animals. Yet, ironically, we increasingly demand and consume “lifelong or recreational” drugs or metabolic modifiers with abandon, despite many of them having serious and potentially dangerous side effects of which we are well aware. Further, there are many areas in the world where the direct use of genetic manipulation to increase food production is subject to preventive and/or restrictive regulation without evidence of any measurable side effects. Clearly, we have a serious dichotomy in play here!

Layered on top of all this is the steady decline in public funding of agricultural research—investment that have for more than two centuries kept at bay the Malthusian prediction of disaster due to starvation. In its place have emerged forces that dictate the direction of research toward narrow special interests that often are not focused on the public good.

The reasons why public investment in agricultural research has steadily declined over the last few decades are numerous. Perhaps the most worrisome is the lack of understanding by the public and public decision makers/powerbrokers of the return on investment. The decline in the number of people with direct connections to production agriculture has generated a void in knowledge of how research translates into abundant, healthy, low-cost food on the taxpayers table. Until that knowledge void is resolved, taxpayer support for research will continue to be a challenge.

So what are we to do? There is no question that we must use every tool science can provide, translated through technology and best management practices at all levels, or we will fail. That means that if there are well-founded questions about the safety or efficacy of genetically modified crops and animals, we must promptly address those questions, conclusively identifying responses that either correct the problem or eliminate the questions so as not to lose the benefits provided.

We must develop, redevelop or modify widely accepted and followed integrated systems of production of crops and food animals that are environmentally and economically sustainable, efficient in use of water, energy and nutrients, and protective of our soils. We must reinvent the publically-supported—aka, funded—agricultural research systems. These research systems need to be collaborative in nature, global in scope and charged with adequate human resources focused on “big picture” work.

At the same time, especially in developed countries, we must overcome the dismal job that we in agriculture have done in communicating our story to the vast majority of people who have no direct connection with food production. Those individuals are understandably vulnerable to the misinformation and negative sensationalism that some voices apply to agriculture and specifically food production. This is not a trivial effort. It represents the major piece of the future of mankind.

We often say that we need another “Apollo Mission” to address a specific need. If we are to feed 9 billion people, we need a global “Apollo Mission”, far larger than that original mission of some 45 years ago because there is far more at stake. The reality is that we have no choice but to proceed to prove that the Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus once again underestimated the abilities of mankind.

Leonard S. Bull Leonard S. Bull (
Animal Science Professor Emeritus, North Carolina State University, Advising Animal Agriculture and Environmental Issues

View more posts by Leonard S. Bull

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