Plant a crop, raise a cow, feed the world?


October 3rd, 2011

By Eric Durban, Harvest Public Media

Kansas – Farming sounds simple enough: plant a crop, raise a cow, feed the world. But the task of feeding and clothing a growing population estimated at 9 billion people by the year 2050 isn’t quite that simple. Maintaining a productive, reliable food system in a world of declining resources presents a serious challenge. And many believe that challenge can only be met through research, research and more research.

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Yet, the outlook for government funding of that research is hazy at best. At the federal level, funding has shrunk to about $2.5 billion a year, a 20 percent decline since the mid-1990s.

“If you kept that number flat and project out to mid-century we’re not going to see that increase in agricultural productivity that we’re going to need in order to feed the U.S. population and also to keep up our agricultural exports which have been really important for farmers and for our farm economy,” said Cathie Woteki, Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Farming to feed an ever-growing population can present enormous technical challenges that require research to overcome. (Photo by Eric Durban, Harvest Public Media)

A USDA report projects that a yearly spending increase of at least 3.7 percent is needed to meet inflation and sufficiently increase U.S. ag output.

To keep up with population growth, output needs to increase by a couple percent a year, said Bob Young, chief economist for the American Farm Bureau.

“It is a race and you need to be kind of at that rate,” he said. “If you don’t have the research to provide you with that kind of rates of gain, the bottom line answer is you just talk about that much tighter supplies and prices have to move accordingly.”

Research and development funding (in billions) for agriculture in 2006. This federal number figures into the five-year average of $2.5 billion.

Much of the nation’s most significant ag research happens at the country’s land-grant universities, a system that’s celebrating 150 years in 2012. Some of that is federally funded, some of it is state funded. (And state funding also has declined in recent years.)

But private companies also significantly contribute to ag research (around $2.8 billion in 2006, for example), though from a different end of the spectrum.

“Private companies, including Monsanto, do, of course, work on areas where we can develop products and make a reasonable profit,” said David Fischhoff, vice president for technology strategy and development at St. Louis-based Monsanto, a global ag and biotech company.

Gary Pierzynski, interim director at Kansas State University Research and Extension, said that means that private industry isn’t willing to fund some research, particularly efforts that are further from the final product.

To keep up with population growth, ag output needs to increase by a couple percent a year, said Bob Young, chief economist for the American Farm Bureau. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia)

And that is where university researchers often take the lead.

“Soil science research, there’s no money to be made there, so to speak, and yet there’s a lot of work that needs to be done on the role of soils in maintaining our agricultural productivity and how crops and other ecosystems respond to stresses like climate change,” Pierzynski said.

Another example, he said, would be winter wheat research and breeding.

Kansas State’s wheat breeding success drew the eye of Monsanto and led to a partnership in 2010. The collaboration is focusing on developing improved wheat varieties over the next five years.

Fischhoff said it’s a mutually beneficial relationship: Kansas State has the experience, while Monsanto has the advanced technology.

“It’s a matter of us working together with our public sector colleagues to understand what the greatest needs are,” he said.

But Donn Teske, president of the Kansas Farmers Union, said he’s concerned about public research dollars funding private industry advances.

“I think that’s one of the saddest things that we’re losing now is that truly public domain of the research varieties that came out of our land-grant universities,” Teske said.

Basically, the fear is that private companies will influence the public side to the benefit of the industry, rather than the farmer.

Pierzynski said he understands the concerns, but noted that Kansas State remains objective and shares in any commercialization.

“We don’t accept research dollars without the understanding that we’re going to publish that in the open literature, and again, that’s a way to maintain our independence,” he said.

In tough budget times, often it’s about reprioritizing and understanding the needs of the farmer and the market. For instance, when the university’s corn breeder retired more than 10 years ago, Kansas State didn’t fill the position. Pierzynski said industry had taken over that role.

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