Today’s ag progress and farm science


Penn State’s new ag dean, Bruce McPheron, walked through the Ag Progress Days site — the Russell Larson Agricultural Research Center — the week before the show, and came away pondering the meaning of the words “ag progress.”

There’s no doubt that the 20th century witnessed great “ag progress”, McPheron commented in his blog Aug. 17. Productivity boomed; food became more readily available; agriculture became safer, smarter, more diversified.

The down side? “Food became a good, not so different from a television or a cell phone,” McPheron wrote. “It is a product with whatever features you might want, produced in some supply chain that we know nothing about.”

Is that progress, he asks.

“I would argue that agriculture and our food system has, in fact progressed, but the erosion of what I call food literacy is alarming,” McPheron blogged.

And it takes two to tango. We can’t continue to make ag progress — scientific or technological progress — unless we confront the role of public opinion in today’s agriculture.

The need for new knowledge in agriculture has never been greater. Just look at the headlines today and you’ll find the farm connections in stories about fuel, or food, or energy, or medicine, or health.

There is growing consumer concern about food safety, about mega-farms, about transparency, about environmental sustainability.

But there’s also a hungry world population — 6.7 billion and counting — that will need to be fed, clothed, and housed. Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal that “current agricultural productivity took 10,000 years to attain the production of roughly 6 billion gross tons of food per year.” Today, the world’s population consumes that amount nearly every year.

With the world population expected to be nearly 10 billion by 2050, Borlaug adds, “you quickly see how the crudest calculations suggest that within the next four decades the world’s farmers will have to double production.”

There are two tiers of U.S. agriculture developing: one focused on direct marketing and a geographically finite consumer market near the farm; one focused on producing for the commodity market. That’s OK. I think we need both.

But what we don’t need is a romanticized notion that the farm of the future will be the farm of the early 20th century, or that all technology is bad. Technology and science gave those farms the tractor, conservation practices, higher-yielding seeds, artificial insemination and other advances. Technology and science continue to give today’s farmers the tools they need to improve their sustainability and profitability. We will not be able to feed 6 billion people, let alone 10 billion, using yesterday’s knowledge.

We don’t, however, farm in a vacuum. McPheron puts it this way: “We also need to embrace food production systems that help to connect consumption with production so that there is an understanding of where our food comes from …”.

It’s a tall order. But it illustrates why we need ag progress and farm science today more than ever.

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(You can follow Dean Bruce McPheron on Twitter.)


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