Producers and ranchers take notice: Corn prices are about to settle back down.

In a wide-ranging mid-July conversation with Farm Press, Pat Westhoff, director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri, said he wouldn’t “paint an overly pessimistic picture of the future outlook. The corn price is certainly much higher than we’ve had in the past – just not as high as in the last couple of years.”

Westhoff, who recently spoke at a Kansas City Federal Reserve forum on global agriculture, told the crowd “that a lot of people are bit too willing to assume that (prices) can only go up from here, that a rising population and other factors mean that prices will continue to go up and up.

“I don’t think that’s at all a safe assumption. If we were to have a larger than expected crop this year, or some other year, we could see a pretty serious downtown in prices.”

While world population continues to rise to an estimated 9 billion by 2050, Westhoff said predictions show the number of people added to the world population each year “is expected to decline.” Based on U.S. Census Bureau estimates, “the number of people added to the world's population averaged about 77 million people per year between 2000 and 2010, and we are projected to add about 76 million per year this decade. That drops to 69 million per year in the 2020s and 48 million per year by the 2040s.”

The common belief is that projected population growth itself creates some unprecedented challenge. In fact, “population growth will probably decline in importance as a driver of future demand growth as population growth rates continue to decline around the world.

“The real difficult questions are how much per-capita consumption will change in the future, and whether productivity growth will continue at the current rate, speed up or slow down.

“To oversimplify a bit, if per-capita consumption levels off but productivity continues to grow at the current pace or even faster, then we should expect lower prices in the future; if per-capita consumption grows rapidly (with income growth and/or biofuel demand) and productivity growth slows, then we should expect higher prices.”

Another commonly held belief is that the world’s available farmland is all currently in production. Not so.

“There’s additional land which could come into production,” said Westhoff. “We’ve seen a big increase in the overall amount of land used for producing the four major crops over the last 10 years. That’s led to a pretty astounding increase on a global basis.

Part of the increase occurs because USDA statistics count double-crop acres. “Get two crops off the same acre, that’s even more production.

“That’s happening not just (in the United States) but in China, Brazil and India. I was rather surprised when looking at the numbers that the largest increase in reported acres harvested is actually in India. That isn’t because they’ve found more dirt to farm but because they’re doing a much better job of double-cropping and managing their crops.

“Going forward, Ukraine is a place where there has already been some growth and there could be more. The same is true in Russia, where there is land that was in crop production in the past and could come back in with incentives like higher prices and favorable government policies.”

Don’t forget Africa.

“Nations in southern Africa are also poised to bring increase acreage if the political situation were to improve.

“Unless there’s some new driver for demand out there that we don’t currently know about, it isn’t obvious to me that we need to bring in lots and lots of additional land for the next 10, 20, or 30 years. Just ordinary yield growth – if it continues at the recent pace – might be able to accommodate a lot of the demand increase we’re likely to see.”