Changing the Narrative: It’s Not Just About Yield

For years now when someone outside the industry asks what I do, I give them the “elevator speech,” the 30-second recap that explains what our magazine, digital products, and events are designed to do. It goes something like this:

“By 2050, there will be 9 billion people on the planet. To feed all those people we will need to increase our food production by anywhere from 60% to 100%, depending on the estimate. Our magazine focuses on the products that can be used to help make that happen.”

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Simple. Concise. And possibly wrong. Or, at least partially wrong, according to a new study, “Agriculture in 2050: Recalibrating Targets for Sustainable Intensification,” from a team of researchers from major American land-grant universities.

The mantra that the industry has shared for so many years comes from research that is several years old, and while it was not necessarily inaccurate at the time, it doesn’t account for advances made since the early 2000s. For example, since 2005, global cereal production has increased 24% and oil crops 39%, according to the authors of the study, which was published in BioScience.

Lead author of the study Mitch Hunter said the current data suggests a production increase of 25% to 70% would be necessary to meet the growing population’s needs. “The new research indicates that ‘roughly historical rates’ of production growth should be able to meet this lower demand.”

But researchers were concerned with more than just the rate of production. Food waste was one issue, but the study also looked at how the impact a singular focus on increased production could have on other areas of agriculture. In addition to increasing efficiency, the industry should concern itself with “nutrient losses, and greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture must drop dramatically to restore and maintain ecosystem functioning.”

According to the study, “The prevailing discourse on the future of agriculture is dominated by an imbalanced narrative that calls for food production to increase dramatically — potentially doubling by 2050 — without specifying commensurate environmental goals.”

I will take issue with that last statement. The industry has done an admirable job of late focusing on the environmental issues around agriculture and the products used to increase yields. China has been inspecting factories for several years in an effort to improve the environmental footprint of that country’s manufacturers. In addition, the industry as a whole has embraced biological control products. AgriBusiness Global’s sold-out Biocontrols Africa conference in July is just one example. Sister publications have or will host three other biocontrol events this year.

The growth and focus on precision agriculture is another example of the dedication to improving yield, giving manufacturers and distributors new tools to improve the sustainability and efficiency of crop production systems.

A recent discussion at the AgriBusiness Global Trade Summit seemed to cast some doubt on one of the key components of the original argument. It seems there are those who believe the 9 billion figure is inaccurate. Not only will we not reach 9 billion people by 2050, we might actually drop below the current level of 7.5 billion currently walking the earth.

Wherever we end up, I have confidence the ag industry will respond to the needs of growers and AgriBusiness Global will be providing the insight companies need to make the decisions to keep their operations relevant.