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Sustainable agriculture -- no silver bullets, but maybe some silver buckshot


Agriculture's future challenge is to provide enough food to feed 9 billion people by 2050. Environmental groups are sure to want more rules and regulations, but these rules cannot handcuff agriculture's freedom to innovate, say experts.


Producing enough food to feed 9 billion people by 2050 could be the biggest test sustainable agriculture has ever faced. The difficulty is balancing the preservation of natural resources with the technological development needed to meet these goals.

To get it done, David Cleary, director of agriculture for The Nature Conservancy, says there must be collaboration between agriculture and environmentalism. During a panel discussion on sustainability at Monsanto’s Media Days, Cleary clearly understands that, well, we’re all in this together.

“It is critical for the health of the world’s food system that the American agricultural system maintains yield and productivity gains over the past 40 years to 50 years,” Cleary said. “It’s also critical for the health of the world’s food system that the United States continues to play its historical role as the biggest center for technological innovation.”

On the other hand, Cleary is unapologetic in blaming agriculture for not paying enough attention to the environment in the past.

“Historically, yield and productivity gains have been bought at the expense of topsoil. You can extend that to water as well. The science is pretty unambiguous if you’re looking at hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, or algal blooms in the Great Lakes. There is an agricultural contribution to that.

“Looking forward, I think there has to be some kind of grand bargain between agriculture and the environmental side of the equation. There’s a huge amount of devil in the detail. It’s not as though there is a single silver bullet. But there may be some silver buckshot. There are solutions out there that we can deploy.”

Rick Tolman, chief executive officer, National Corn Growers Association, cited recent studies indicating that U.S. corn producers have discovered and implemented quite a few nuggets of agricultural sustainability over the last 30 years.

“Since 1980, the land that it takes to produce one bushel of corn has declined by 30 percent, the soil loss per bushel has declined by 67 percent, the water used to irrigate a bushel of corn by 53 percent and the energy use to produce a bushel of corn has been reduced by 43 percent.

“We have made continued improvement, we still have room to grow and improvement will continue. It’s been a great story of sustainability and it has been done scientifically,” Tolman said.

The next 35 years will demand that agriculture continue to shrink its environmental footprint while doubling food production. Environmentalists are sure to want more rules and regulations. Agriculture – the freedom to be innovative.

“We need to be very careful that we don’t take away the solutions to the problem,” Tolman said. “Some well-meaning proposals would take away some of the tools that have allowed farmers to intensify agriculture.”

Hopefully, the twain shall meet in a reasonable place for everyone.






Discuss this Blog Entry 4

Anonymous (not verified)
on May 31, 2013

The secret is not worrying about feeding that many people. The real secret is reducing the amount of people coming into our world, plus the need for very stringent birth control in the world, so people will not continue multiplying like rabbits. The world's population is reproducing themselves right into extinction. Another practice that needs to be improved, is the waste we have in this country. Too much food is being tossed out every single day. What a waste of valuable food, produced by our hard working American famers. People have to open their eyes, and see the real problem.

Anonymous (not verified)
on May 31, 2013

This is material contained in a TED Talk on agriculture. The video from the talk can be found on the TED web site.

Dan (not verified)
on Jun 3, 2013

I lean toward the first writer. When we find we can feed 9 billion in 2050, how about the 12 billion later in the century? Just in case, we better be squeezing aspirins between our knees now (M & F). Or maybe we can develop people 1/10th our size and appetite. Discussing birth control is political suicide.

on Aug 7, 2013

Great article!

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