Published on 05/27/10

New farm bill must chart a new course, not go with the flow

By J. Scott Angle

World population is swelling like a slow-moving tidal wave. In the past decade, the world’s population increased by almost 1 billion. Within the next four decades, experts expect the wave to grow by 50 percent, increasing to 9.4 billion people.

At the same time, food prices have risen, investment in food production has fallen and available land for growing food has dwindled. The wave of population growth and the ebb in available food has eaten away at food security, stirring concern for how we will meet future demand.

Last year, 1 billion people across the globe went hungry. The United Nations projects an additional 100 million will go hungry this year. Population growth is on track to outpace food production, if we don’t stem the tide.

And, we can. We have.

Between 1970 and 1990, the number of our neighbors going hungry decreased in large part due to U.S.-driven innovations in food production, particularly those put in place in Southeast Asia and Africa.

Visionary policy needed

We can turn the storm if we ramp up food production now. The southeastern U.S. is the ideal place to chart a brighter, secure future. But we must have visionary policy in the 2012 Farm Bill.

The five-year federal farm policy laid out in a farm bill influences areas of agriculture including farm payments, supplemental nutrition assistance programs (food stamps), international trade, conservation programs, rural community development, food safety and agricultural research.

Improving federal investment is more important to the survival of the nation’s agricultural research and education system as state support is quickly evaporating. As we explore new ways to increase food production, ensure safety and improve storage and delivery, investment in the proven U.S. system of agricultural innovation is as important as your next meal.

Many areas of the world simply will be unable to respond to this challenge.

Asia has poor soils and limited rainfall and will be hard-pressed to increase food production. Africa remains hopeful, but until political instability is resolved, the continent will never be able to feed itself.

South and Central America, while blessed with good soils and rainfall, will not likely cut down rainforests for enhanced production. And Europe, also with good soil and rainfall, will likely produce less food due to a variety of social policies that are causing the continent to stagnate.

This leaves North America as the world’s hope for expanded food production. But even here, production patterns are changing. Available water in the West is declining. A decade from now there will be less food produced west of the Rockies than is produced there today. In the northern U.S., temperature and sunlight limit the amount of new food that will be produced.

Southeast in perfect position

U.S. food production must increase, and the Southeast can lead the way. It’s an obligation and opportunity. In 2009, the U.S. imported $72 billion of agricultural products while we exported $98 billion of the same. We can widen the surplus even more.

But past federal policies haven’t always focused on agriculture in the Southeast. This farm bill should.

Congress is now holding listening sessions for the new farm bill that will see us through the next five years. Federal farm policy can either promote production in the Southeast, meeting the need, or limit production, putting more of the world’s poor in peril. We must explore every avenue for increasing production to keep more people fed.

The only way the Southeast can increase food production to the region’s full potential is through science and technology. They aren’t making any more land. We must efficiently use what we have. U.S. agriculture is largely dependent on federal funding for research, development and training that leads to higher production. Yet, many agriculture funding streams are shrinking or drying up.

More research needed

More research is needed to find ways to reduce production costs and increase farm profitability. While some research is generated from private companies, the private sector has no incentive to reduce inputs, which reduces their profits. No private business will invest in technologies that have limited economic return, but are vital to increasing food production.

Reduced pesticide and fertilizer use, integrated pest management, water-use efficiency and natural resource conservation are important for the public good. We need these research and outreach programs. Only local, state and federal governments will support them.

The land-grant university system was established to fill this void. Our federal, state and local partnership is the envy of the world. Many studies credit much of the success in American agriculture to the land-grant system.

Our country has come a long way since the Great Depression, when nearly four out of every 10 Americans worked in food production. Today, less than 2 percent of the country’s population works on the farm.

In the U.S. today, we spend much less on food than when 40 percent of Americans worked on farms. Many of the improvements that help farmers produce abundant, affordable food for exponentially more people came through technology developed at land-grant institutions.

The land-grant system is ready to meet the challenges ahead. But the system requires commitment and funding to continue research into new technologies and to get them into the marketplace to improve the livelihoods of farmers around the world and to produce enough food to alleviate hunger.

U.S. agriculture has a bright future. Strategic security needs for the U.S., pressing economic need for a positive trade balance and the humanitarian need to feed the world are coming together in a way that makes agriculture more important today than ever. Policies set forth in the next farm bill will dictate the direction we take.

J. Scott Angle is a former dean and director of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

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