Sustainability + farm productivity = future


There’s a story about Kika de la Garza, the venerable chairman of the House ag committee in the 1980s and ’90s, touring a high tech nuclear submarine off the coast of Florida.

De la Garza asked the captain how long the ship could stay submerged. The captain replied, “As long as we have food, sir!”

“And that’s when I knew the meaning of agriculture,” the congressman said.

Bill Gates — America’s richest man — drew more attention to that meaning of agriculture as he addressed the World Food Prize Symposium Oct. 15 in Iowa. (Scroll to the bottom to watch a video of Gates’ presentation.)

Food, the most basic of needs, is the root of health and, in developing countries, agriculture is the only source of income for many people.

Three-quarters of the world’s poorest people get their food and income by farming, Gates said. And the only way to improve those lives is through better farming, better storage, better infrastructure and better marketing.

Gates mourned the passing of Norman Borlaug, whose life was dedicated to this very premise, and whose work, Gates said, “helped avert famine, save hundreds of millions of lives and lift whole countries out of poverty.”

The same work could continue today, but the effort is threatened by an “ideological wedge,” Gates said.

On one side is a technological approach that increases productivity, he explained. On the other side is an environmental approach that promotes sustainability.

“Productivity or sustainability — they say you have to choose,” Gates said.

That fact is, said the philanthropist, “we need both productivity and sustainability — and there’s no reason we can’t have both.”

A lot of Gates’ speech focused on global hunger and problems specifically in Africa, and he has thrown his weight and money into the effort, as has the U.S., with a new global hunger and food security initiative driven by the U.S. State Department and the USDA.

But with the same ideological wedge growing here in the U.S., I would challenge all to heed Gates words in regards to U.S. agriculture, too.

We don’t have to choose. Sustainability and technology can exist hand in hand.

Science has and will continue to improve plant genetics, mechanical advancements, input use, conservation practices, human knowledge and overall productivity.

One size, one answer, does not fit all.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined for a media teleconference Oct. 16 — World Food Day — to discuss the U.S. role in global food security. The U.S. and other nations have pledged more than $22 billion in the next three years for agriculture-led economic growth.

“You can have sustainable, productive agriculture that is really aimed at giving people the tools that they need to support themselves,” Clinton said.

When it comes to farming, why don’t we see more sentences with the words “sustainable” and “productivity” in them? They are the only things that will keep food on all our tables.

(You can read a transcript of the Vilsack/Clinton teleconference.)

Watch Bill Gates’ speech:

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