Just before giving up his post as interim U.S. agriculture secretary last month, Chuck Conner warned that growing enough corn, soybeans and wheat to meet food, feed and biofuel demands this year is going to be “very dicey.” He thought that we farmers were up to the challenge this year, but many of us are concerned that we will be denied the tools we need for the long run.
Renewable fuels are a new challenge. Congress has mandated 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels per year by 2022. Corn-based ethanol is expected to be about 40 percent of that, which will require a 130 percent increase over current ethanol production levels.
Add in the vagaries of climate. Two years ago, drought in France and Spain resulted in the worst corn production in 50 years. In Australia, where drought has been persistent since 2002, some wheat farmers failed to harvest a crop for the first time in 40 years. Wheat yields were also disappointing in Europe. U.S. corn production was down 5 percent because of drought in 2006, but it rebounded in 2007.
Last December, Jacques Diouf, the head of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, warned that people were already starting to go hungry in poor countries because hotter weather was shrinking the food supply and pushing up prices.
Pest pressure has not eased up. Last year heavy rains in the United Kingdom produced widespread fungal diseases in potatoes and other crops. In the U.S., the spread of blight and Sudden Death Syndrome in soybeans continues to be a concern while soy stockpiles are at their lowest levels in years. Insects remain a perennial threat to all crops, and we must be vigilant to ensure that weeds don't cut into yields.
While Mother Nature unleashes all sorts of tricks, the human population continues to climb by an estimated 75 million per year. Global population is projected to rise from 6.6 billion today to more than 8 billion by 2025. As India and China become more industrialized, they lose crop productivity while their people demand more grain-fed meat and protein. This month India's foremost farm scientists warned that their country is headed for a crisis in food productivity. They called for a new “Green Revolution” and easy access to modern technologies to boost productivity.
Farmers need all the help we can get to meet this global demand for food, feed, fiber and fuel. Modern science gives us confidence, but global politics makes us queasy. Many companies are developing new tools, such as drought-resistant crops. Others are working on disease resistance. Already we have crops that ward off some insects, but we need to target more pests. Other developers are working on grain that produces more ethanol while leaving coproducts suitable for livestock feeds. Seeds that boost yields and control pests are our best hope of meeting global demand.
Tools may not come, however. Many opponents continue to resist. Over the protests of French farmers, that country banned biotech corn that controls a devastating pest. The World Trade Organization is frustrated in trying to overturn the European Union's policy of not approving any new biotech crops. Incredibly, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan opposes biotechnology in Africa, where starvation threatens millions of lives.
Here at home, activist groups in league with big organic interests disparage modern agricultural technologies so as to create consumer uncertainty. Their rhetoric does more than expand the niche organic market; it contributes to bad policies. It's one thing to try to create customers; it's quite another to impede the development of technologies that give farmers the best chance of meeting the incredible production challenges that lie ahead.
If things are dicey today, just imagine what they will be in a few years.