Farmers and the Future of Food

As globalization has greatly widened the lens through which we view human activities, the critical role of agriculture in this larger tableau—and of the farmer in particular—has expanded as well. All of the seemingly intractable global challenges we face—exploding population growth, hunger, poor nutrition, lack of food security and safety, a growing middle class, and changing diets—are falling heavily on the world’s farmers.

So it’s a good thing they’re not alone in facing these challenges. Think of the farmer as the hub of our global food development and supply chain ecosystem, and the input suppliers, food companies, regulators, advocates, and consumers as the spokes. Every single one of these players has a stake in making sure there’s enough safe food for people around the world and, thus, in increasing both yield and farm sustainability. This makes them natural collaborators with farmers in the effort to address the changes and improvements needed to satisfy the increasing global demand for food.

“In the next 30 years, the world has to feed billions of more people,” says Ed Kee, former Delaware Secretary of Agriculture. “The efficiencies and technological advances and stakeholder relationships that are created to produce those calories are critical. Without them, growers will not be able to do the job they have to—and want to—do.”

Sizing up the challenge

The numbers make all too clear the difficulty of the task at hand. By 2050, global population will grow by one-third, to almost 10 billion and caloric intake will rise even faster because of improved standards of living around the world. The result is that farm output will have to increase by about 70 percent to satisfy food demand.

Part of the increase in demand will be a direct outcome of increasing urbanization, which is likely to add around 2.5 billion new city dwellers around the world by 2050. Larger cities means improvements in commercial infrastructure, which, in turn, generates more jobs, with higher pay. And as incomes rise, people favor more expensive foods—especially meat. Annual per capita meat consumption is projected to reach 45.3 kilograms per person in 2030, up from 36.4 kg in 1997-99. With that, the need for livestock feed will skyrocket, ratcheting up pressure on farm yields since cattle, chicken and pigs typically consume about 70 percent of the grain grown in the U.S. and 75 percent of soybean crops globally in any given year.

In many ways, this couldn’t have come at a worse time. Farm yields are growing but not nearly at the pace they need to. Currently, output of four key staples—corn, rice, wheat and soybeans – is increasing at rates of only about 0.9 to 1.6 percent a year. This translates into overall yield gains for each crop of about 38 to 67 percent by 2050. Even if farmers produce to the upper range and global population grows on the low side of forecasts, the math doesn’t work for farm output to keep up with demand.

Compounding the problem, often as a reaction to the ever-present threat that unpredictable commodity prices will fall, growers tend to fall prey to the determination to improve yields beyond what is feasible for their farms. This in turn has led at times to ill-advised farming practices, such as overuse of chemicals, poorly planned crop rotation and the destruction of biodiversity. In the long term, however, such practices can have the opposite effect, impeding attempts to boost output. According to the United Nations about 30 percent of land globally is considered degraded—either eroded or robbed of its nutrients by poor land management and rapidly losing its ability to produce sufficient food. Meanwhile, climate change—driven in part by greenhouse gases produced by farms—is aggravating soil damage and making global agricultural systems yet more fragile. In fact, the National Academy of Sciences predicts that if global mean temperature rises just 2 degrees Fahrenheit, corn yields will fall by 7.4 percent, wheat by 6 percent and rice by 3.2 percent.

Equally problematic, agricultural activity uses 70 percent of the world’s freshwater resources. But pollution and other types of mismanagement, including chemical run-off from farms, continue to plague water supplies. Twenty-eight percent of all agricultural land, 56 percent of irrigated cropland, 43 percent of wheat fields and 35 percent of corn acreage are already in water-stressed regions.

Almost everyone involved with agriculture acknowledges these stubborn issues. But as is often the case, resolving them won’t be easy. Farmers, and regulators, agricultural supply companies and food manufacturers, too, tend get defensive about what they are doing to improve yield and grow food more safely and securely. But they are all coming around, in increasingly large numbers, and cooperation among groups with a stake in the outcome is on the rise.

The role of regulators

Because they get to set the rules, regulators could have the greatest impact, and they are becoming increasingly active. Regulatory efforts in developed countries began around the early 1970s, primarily as a response to concerns about air and water pollution. But over time, these regulations have increasingly been linked to improving agricultural productivity by tackling the environmental conditions that impact crop growth.

In many cases, these policies are enforced by linked farm subsidies. In the European Union, as much as 50 percent of all government-based payments to farmers are dependent upon the degree to which sustainable agricultural methods and measurement protocols are adopted. High on the list of these policy recommendations are disciplined crop rotation plans and reduced water irrigation schemes. Regulators in Asia, too, and particularly in China, are emphasizing environmentally sound agricultural practices, to be implemented between now and 2030. In the U.S., however, regulators have been slower to use subsidies to compel agricultural sustainability improvements. Only 6 percent of total U.S. farmer revenue is tied to subsidies for sustainable agriculture programs.

One very large effort, however, on the part of the United Nations may have an outsized influence on the way regulators—and thus farmers—address food production shortfalls and security. In 2015, all 193 member nations backed a plan called the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which has 17 separate goals, including ending poverty, combatting climate change and safeguarding biodiversity. Under the category Zero Poverty, the U.N. set a target of 2030 to “ensure sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production, that help maintain ecosystems, that strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding and other disasters and that progressively improve land and soil quality.” Many countries, especially in developing areas, are using the U.N. rules as templates for their own agricultural policies.

For farmers, working with regulators is often a difficult process. There isn’t a lot of give-and-take on the part of policymakers, who tend to be more interested in implementing newly legislated rules than in working with farmers, whose livelihood and work routines will be altered the most by those rules.

On the other hand, the private sector—both agricultural suppliers and food companies—typically maintains a different, non-adversarial relationship with farmers. These companies are beginning to adopt business strategies that support sustainable farming initiatives, in large part to ensure the growth of their industries while improving crop yields to feed the world’s expanding population. Done right, these strategies encourage cooperation and collaboration with growers, enabling them to take advantage of leading-edge product and services offerings that directly address farm productivity, sustainability and safety issues.

Private enterprise

The activities of food companies are driven in part by the swelling ranks of consumers seeking safer food that comes from farms determined to strengthen the health of their soil and produce more nutritious crops. There is a profit motive at work here as well: studies have found that profit margins of organically grown products, for example, can run as much as 50 percent higher than traditionally grown food. Whatever the reason, the outcome is the same. Farmers are increasingly under pressure to grow and prove that they grow highest-value crops. “If you don’t have records, then you can’t do business now with Danone Yogurt,” says Julie Natale, director of customer relations at Granular, a farm management software company. “If you don’t have a picture of the bag of seeds you’ve planted that grew the soybeans that cows eat, you’re out of luck.”

That’s just one of many examples. Kellogg’s has begun a program to buy its staple ingredients, including corn, wheat and rice, solely from farms with a minimal carbon footprint and that prioritizes protecting water supplies and soil health. And Mondelez has an aggressive initiative that tackles, among other things, agricultural land deforestation and increasing the use of precision equipment on farms to optimize water use and limit the use of fertilizers and pesticides.

Altruistic or not, all of these initiatives are ultimately beneficial to farmers because they ostensibly will lead to better soil productivity, safer and more plentiful water resources and a wider marketplace of customers willing to pay more for their crops. For that reason, it makes sense for farmers to collaborate with food companies to improve conditions on their farms. Already a few of these partnerships have produced results. For instance, in 2012, Campbell Soup Company began using metrics developed by environmental groups, growers and food companies to assess the sustainability practices of their tomato growers. After monitoring water and fertilizer use for five years, Campbell and the farmers developed a drip irrigation technique that reduced average water use by nearly 25 percent.

Environmental cooperation

To forge better, more collaborative relationships with food companies, some farmers are turning to environmental groups for help. Because of their private sector responsibilities to shareholders, food companies may demand farming practices—such as using precision agricultural equipment or taking complex soil readings before planting—that prove too great an economic burden on hard-pressed farmers, ultimately harming grower profitability even as they try to improve farm output. Environmental groups have the same goal as food companies and farmers—cleaner and safer growing practices that protect water and soil. But because they are often more well-versed in the underlying resource issues, they can sometimes make a strong case both for policies that best balance environmental and economic concerns in the short run and that are more likely to be successful in the long run. Not always, but frequently, these environmental groups can offer compromise approaches that will favor farmers and, thus, encourage at least a minimum of environmentally-sound activities from growers who otherwise would not be able to afford to participate.

When consumer packaged goods companies set sustainability goals, farmers can be affected “in positive or negative ways,” says Sean McMahon, executive director of the Iowa Ag Water Alliance (IAWA). “A number of environmental and conservation groups enjoy a strong relationship and influence over these companies. And it can be constructive for agricultural groups to have strong working relationships with them. When sustainability and goals are driven by data and science and not emotion and rhetoric, it is better for everyone.”

Inputs and output

Agricultural supply companies, both seed and crop protection providers and equipment manufacturers, are also rising to the challenge to improve yields, boost productivity and ensure food safety. After all, their growth depends upon the health of farms and farming as a profession. So they are developing products and services that put as great a premium on the sustainable use of inputs and machinery as on maximizing farm yields.

Many of these products are the result of advances in technology. Standalone sensors and sensors on farm equipment can monitor crop health, soil infestations, fertilizer efficacy and soil moisture levels on individual fields and even plant clusters. These pictures provide a level of insight about farm conditions that growers couldn’t imagine 20 years ago—and are beginning to wonder how they ever did without.

As veteran Iowa farmer Kevan Kaiser put it, “Nitrogen management has been tough my whole career. Being able to delineate everything that’s going on in the environment in a specific location now allows me to have up to date, ready to go recommendations about the amount of nitrogen in the soil and how much is needed. I can’t ask for more.”

Field of opportunities

For growers, the possibilities inherent in being the foundation of the world’s most essential supply chain are enormous. Partnerships among stakeholders are valuable and even essential in the effort to improve yield and protect environmental resources. But farmers have the standing in the agricultural arena to use their position and their unique expertise to drive the sustainable production of food for a fast-rising global population.

Aaron Lee, a Southern Indiana farmer, described the attitude that growers should have to deal with their challenges by breaking down the problem into one crop at a time: “I look at it, I'm 43 years old. I've planted about 23 crops and I may want to do another 20 or 25 in my life. And in the big scheme of things, that's not very many. So I look at each one, each planting, as just incredibly important to do the best job that we can.”