Despite What You Hear, The Best Years For Agriculture Are On The Horizon
Just about everywhere you turn in the agriculture industry today, people are talking about the downturn for the American farmer. With slumping prices for most major crops, farmers’ incomes are shrinking, expecting to decline another 9 percent this year, according to the USDA.
It’s true, agriculture is at one of its periodic crossroads in its long and storied history. For a wide range of reasons, the number of American farms has been steadily declining from a high of 6.8 million in 1935 to 2.1 million today.
Yet, the world is depending on agriculture to produce more food over the next 30 years than it has in all of human history. By 2050, the global population will reach nearly 10 billion people, requiring an almost 60 percent increase in food production. And, we don’t have to look to the future to see the impact on demand. Even with today’s production, nearly 800 million people around the world go hungry every day.
The challenge before us is daunting, but not impossible and the road to success starts with a clear understanding of where we are today. That means those of us in agriculture have to be completely honest and recognize there’s a significant consumer disconnect with our industry and the innovations necessary to improve productivity. More than a century ago, about 40 percent of the country’s workforce was involved in agriculture. Today’s number is about 2 percent; many people have never even visited a farm.
Perhaps that’s why so many consumers have an idealized perception of how they would like their food produced and fewer still have any concept of what it takes to bring food to our table. It’s also why they believe all those frightening stories about “frankenfoods” when the truth is thousands of studies have consistently shown genetically modified food (GMOs) is as good for you, and as safe, as food produced organically.
The truth is without innovations like GMOs and other agricultural advances, there’s a good chance a lot more people will go hungry in 2050. (“Over One Billion Customers NOT Served” is a slogan that I hope we never see on a billboard.)
So how do we build a more informed public?
Last month, we celebrated National Ag Day in the U.S. Around the country and in Washington, D.C., events were held to honor American agriculture and the people in it who work hard every day to provide us and others worldwide with safe and nutritious food. National Ag Day is an opportunity to shine a light on their efforts and to engage the American people so they can best understand how food and fiber products are produced; appreciate the role agriculture plays in their daily lives; value the positive impact the agriculture industry has on our economy; and consider a career in agriculture.
While awareness days like National Ag Day are important, agriculture should be an ongoing focus of the national agenda. Every year, at our AgVocacy Forum, Bayer brings together experts from across the country to discuss the future of agriculture and how we will meet the challenge of feeding a population that’s growing by leaps and bounds.
This year, among our speakers was an entrepreneur who’s developing “vertical” farms that could help optimize the amount of land used for crops by expanding upward rather than outward; a well-known chef who blends family, food and storytelling in a way that touches people and reminds them of where their food comes from; and policymakers and scientists working to help ensure our industry can continue to feed the world and care for the planet.
While this may appear to be an eclectic group of participants, this is actually indicative of Bayer’s commitment to forward-facing agriculture. We recognize that although farmers will be the ones that feed the world, they can’t do it in a vacuum. It will take all of us. That’s what we mean by “AgVocacy.” In a society increasingly urban, distanced from agriculture, concerned with food issues and antagonistic towards modern agriculture, it’s become critically important for farmers and agricultural professionals to speak out and share their passion for this great industry with all of our citizens.
We have to get beyond the “farm gate” and support the industry we’re so passionate about to help address the inherent conflict between feeding the world and meeting desires of the well-fed. Our goal is to engage with consumers in thoughtful dialogue to help create a better understanding of the challenges before us and the solutions that are needed to meet those challenges.
There may be some who want to return to a highly romanticized “good-old-days” vision of farming which never really existed – back when seeds were sown with a plow behind a mule, soils were depleted, and huge portions of crops were lost to weeds, insects and diseases.
If we want to provide safe, affordable, abundant and nutritious food for all, we can only look forward. I’m excited about the future of agriculture and the next generation of growers who are already doing big things for our industry. They don’t just see the challenges. They see the opportunity and because of that vision, the best is yet to come.