Jerry L. Hatfield 2015-02-23 23:28:19
The estimates for feeding the world in 2050 range from increases of 60% to 110% above our current production levels for grain crops. The more interesting estimate for feeding the world by 2050 will require a greater than 100% increase in caloric production. Over the past 20 years, and more intensively over the past 10 years, I have begun to focus on what will be required from our agricultural systems to produce enough food to feed the ever-increasing population with the increasing variations in temperature and precipitation. At the same time, there has been considerable focus on yield and potential yield in the discussion of how to feed the world, with particular attention given to yield-limiting factors. However, those discussions tend to lead us to search for a single factor affecting yield. In reality, there are multiple paths in our search for sustainable food production that all need to be explored to find solutions to meeting our food needs by 2050. Instead of focusing exclusively on yield, we need to think in terms of production efficiency (i.e., how much we produce per unit of input supplied) and in terms of business (i.e., the return on investment of agronomic decisions). What is the water use efficiency, nitrogen use efficiency, and radiation use efficiency of different crop production systems, and how can those efficiencies be improved through a combination of genetics and management systems? To address this issue, I propose that we expand our thinking and use genetics x environment x management (G x E x M) as the framework for developing and evaluating new production systems. If we begin to address food production with a systematic approach—how genetic resources respond to management systems under different environments— then we will have a clearer definition of what limits yield. In other words, to understand what limits yield, we need to focus our attention on the environmental and management interactions that contribute to yield. One of the critical pieces of this puzzle is the role that enhanced soil quality plays in crop production. We have lost sight of the fact that healthy soil provides water and nutrients and is therefore an essential component of an efficient production system. Our recent study on yield gaps and yield relationships in U.S. soybean production reported that mean county-level soybean yield was positively related to soil quality, as defined by the USDA-NRCS National Crop Commodity Productivity Index (NCCPI). When crops are grown under rainfed conditions, which are typical of most of the world, yield increases as soil quality improves. We are not going to solve the production problem throughout the world unless we address the soil problem and begin to improve the capacity of the soil to produce crops efficiently. In our focus on yield, we have also neglected the quality of the product. We need to reorient our attention to the current state of grain and produce quality, and the factors that affect overall quality. A recent letter in the journal Nature on observed dietary deficiencies caused by increasing atmospheric CO2 should serve as a call to devote more attention to the nutritional quality of our produce. An earlier study on global food demand and the sustainable intensification of agriculture based its projections on the caloric requirements for feeding the world, rather than the tonnage of produce. To create food security, we need to focus on the factors that create nutritious and calorie-dense food products. It may seem that there is little we can to do to meet the needs of the world population in 2050, and that the problem is therefore insolvable. It’s true that we cannot be satisfied with incremental improvements in production. Instead, we need to think about how we can increase our food production dramatically. I believe that part of the solution will be refocusing our research as a more holistic effort, bringing geneticists, agronomists, environmentalists, and social scientists together to develop new farming systems that are adaptable by the producers in specific areas. That won’t be as easy, but it is achievable, and it will allow us to develop and sustain the next agricultural revolution. That is the task that we should embrace. Jerry L. Hatfield, Laboratory Director, Supervisory Plant Physiologist, and Director, USDA-ARS Midwest Climate Hub, Ames, Iowa, USA; email@example.com. Top page photo by Charles Merfield. Mid-page illustration by Michael Marti and the author, photos courtesy of USDA-ARS.
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