The world’s population has crossed the 8 billion mark, and experts say it could hit 10 billion by the end of the century. Bill Gates and the Chinese are buying up what some say are alarming amounts of U.S. farmland. Food prices have reached a 40-year high, with no end in sight. A war in Ukraine threatens the stability of grain supplies for much of the developing world.
All of this adds up to one thing: Farms, which have improved their efficiency hundreds of times over in the last century, must undergo a similarly transformative period of innovation if they are to meet national and global food demand.
The U.S. government can do a number of things to help, many of which amount to getting out of the way. It could end its counterproductive war on energy and approve increased domestic and offshore production, which would stabilize prices not only for the energy used to plant, cultivate, harvest and bring to market agricultural products but also the price of fertilizer, which depends on natural gas in the manufacturing process.
It could remove the requirement that food aid the U.S. provides be purchased in the U.S. and shipped on U.S. vessels. Congress could repeal the Jones Act, which requires ships transporting goods between U.S. ports to be built, owned and operated by U.S. citizens or permanent residents. And the U.S. could urge other countries to curb their own protectionist behavior.
But the nuts and bolts of U.S. agriculture will have to change as well, and it will require some government cooperation, may require some government investment and will include a significant opportunity for private sector investment.
Experts in the field talk about regenerative farming. There are a lot of definitions floating around for the phrase “regenerative farming,” but it generally refers to improved management of the whole agroecosystem, from soil to water to biodiversity. It means plowing weeds under rather than out so they decompose in the farmlands that produced them, using local pollinators, minimal disturbance of soil and maximum use of decomposition. It means growing crops in the precise areas where they grow best.
Robert Rodale, head of the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, which studies organic and restorative farming in side-by-side experiments with commercial farming methods, says regenerative farming can reduce carbon emissions. Done the right way, he says, carbon can be sequestered almost entirely in properly maintained farmland.
His father, J.I. Rodale, pioneered what became the concept of organic and sustainable farming, and his research led to the formation of the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program in 1990. Current research focuses on agronomic cropping systems, chemical-free weed management techniques, weed- and disease-resistant crop varieties, the use of cover crops, compost management and soil health.
The Rodales say their research shows natural systems can be productive and increase capacity into the future if properly managed, and farmers and corporations are taking notice.
About 15% of U.S. farms already operate principally on regenerative farming techniques. The Biden administration has gotten interested in increasing that number. It wants to move $30 billion from the Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Credit Corporation to give farmers incentive to adopt regenerative practices.
Companies such as General Mills, PepsiCo, Unilever and VF Corp., which makes the North Face, Timberland and Vans clothing brands, have also committed to increasing regenerative farming in their supply chains.
The real push toward regenerative agriculture and the increases in environmental protection and farmland production they bring will come from private sector entities such as those making the investments that count. Syngenta, a leader in the move toward regenerative agriculture, says that crop yields will have to increase 40% to 50% to meet the new demand and that the crop, livestock and land management techniques involved will all play key roles in meeting these challenges.
Changes in agriculture will address food insecurity challenges that affect people in every nation. Erik Frywald, CEO of Syngenta, says even wealthy countries will have to increase yields substantially to meet needs affected by the war in Ukraine, COVID-19 and other challenges, and that regenerative farming presents a better alternative to organic farming, which produces lower yields and requires more land.
Worldwide hunger dropped by about a third from 2000 to 2020, but there is evidence it is climbing again. Population increases will continue until at least mid-century, which means less farmland as societies stretch out and more demand for food. Improving efficiency in a way that promotes the health of the increasingly scarce land we use for farming is not a luxury; it is a necessity.
It’s time for the private sector to jump in and push the transformation forward.
• Brian McNicoll, a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Virginia, is a former senior writer for The Heritage Foundation and former director of communications for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.