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0808 PD: The View from Here: The world food crisis

Mike Gangwer Published on 19 May 2008

This headline was the title of the lead editorial of the New York Times, April 10, 2008.

Regardless how you may feel about the New York Times, the article is sobering in many respects. I would like to comment on it.

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Production agriculture is going through a major transition here in this country, and in much of the world as well. The cost of inputs, such as fuel and fertilizer, is increasing at rates not seen before. Add to this the impact of a smaller labor pool here in the U.S., and farmers have some real concerns.

Fortunately, the demand side is increasing too, and in fact that is the editorial’s premise. So rapid is demand for food increasing that those who think strategically (the World Bank was named in the article) point out large numbers of countries and societies are at risk. This risk will drive social unrest. Add to this bleak model another rather new component – biofuels.

Across the Corn Belt, farmers have another market for their corn – ethanol production. In fact, the rapid construction of these sophisticated plants has perhaps outpaced the ability of the land to supply the raw material – corn grain. The USDA recently announced lower corn plantings in the Corn Belt; the basis is high cost of seed and especially nitrogen fertilizer, along with the market value of other crops like soybeans and wheat. Locally, the largest planned ethanol plant in Michigan, just 12 miles from my home, is now on hold. That’s right; construction has stopped for lack of funding. This on the heels of investors backing off on what once was a robust opportunity for large returns on investments.

Consider the news from China and India. These two countries are developing so rapidly that their search for energy, technology and high-quality foodstuffs for a growing middle class is worldwide. Certainly this search is adding to the demand portion of the model (especially cereal grains). While increasing demand for our U.S. farmers (along with a devalued dollar), the impact on livestock producers is obvious.

At a recent animal agriculture forum here in Michigan, the livestock producers were in a dour mood. The concern was threefold: rapid increases in input costs, namely feed; possible shortage of labor or more expensive labor given the recent shift in immigration policy; and the perennial concern about environmental regulations. For the latter, I am reading some news items out of California that are placing many new demands on dairy farmers there, in terms of reporting and justifying environmental compliance. And the costs associated with these demands.

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The New York Times’ article claims that agricultural productivity must increase in the developing world. This is not news. The “Green Revolution” began decades ago, but its base was not only improved seed varieties (cereals), but the availability of fertilizer, especially nitrogen. Examine any fertilizer publication in print today and the take-home message is the same: The supply side cannot keep up with the demand side on a worldwide basis. One reason is the cost of natural gas for N fertilizer (ammonium) and the depreciation of N fertilizer plants without newer, more efficient plants built to replace them.

We should be elevating the importance of crop rotation everywhere in the world. The problem with the Green Revolution was assuming low-cost N fertilizer would always be available. This is not the case today. Rotating legumes with cereals is a good standard here in the Midwest – corn and soybeans. We need to take the cereal-legume model everywhere.

One other element is the shift in climate patterns worldwide. Locally, they are manifest by removing a Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) field out of the soil bank into cereal production. The discharge of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is rapid and dramatic as that field is now tilled and cultivated. The deforestation of entire forests in places like Brazil and the Congo in Africa, change the water cycle and thus shift rainfall and temperature patterns.

We ought to recognize the need for shifting our focus on the strategic instead of the tactical. My own agency, the USDA, is tactically oriented; our job is implementing the current Farm Bill. Yet it is in the realm of our talent pool to find and secure a strategic approach, and this means developing answers before we need them.

For example, the development of expansive urban growth on cropland that is located in the rain-fed system that is the Corn and Dairy Belt is our number one challenge to mitigate. We must protect this farmland for decades from now, and in fact the recent increases in farm land value are helping. But they are not enough.

We should be developing an irrigation strategy that uses this resource as wisely as possible; this strategy includes scheduling and equipment performance. We should be thinking about which crops are worthy of irrigation; for those that can be grown in the rain-fed area, there is less of a need to irrigate them as opposed to other crops that need to be irrigated.

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We are examining the impact of large cereal intake by livestock. This examination includes the use of cereal-rich rations for ruminants. These animals make good use of forages like grasses and legumes.

Finally, the entire arena of global climate change and its related companion environmental stewardship are not going away. We must develop long-term strategies that help guide farmers towards better management of resources so soils become carbon banks, nutrients are kept in the root zone, soil fertility is kept at agronomic values (not environmental thresholds), and water quantity and quality evaluations are built into the decision model.

All of these are here already. My premise is that we must examine them again, and in every case elevate them to a global and strategic discussion. We need answers before someone asks them, which means we do not manage by crisis as the New York Times’ article is claiming.

This model is strategic, not tactical, and it demands our attention right now. Let’s demand this attention from our political leadership, and with this election cycle now in the forefront, this is a good time to ask for forward-thinking views.

I was taught very early in my life we should leave this world a better place for our having been in it. I aim to stick with that lesson and help with some of these ideas mentioned in this article. PD

Mike Gangwer
USDA Adviser

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