50, 100, 70 – Winning the Food Production Lottery

No, these are not the first three numbers of the latest winning PowerBall ticket.  However, don’t discount them. Their meaning is linked to this interesting tidbit of information that is circulating among agricultural academics.

“By the year 2050, we will need to produce 100 percent more food coming from a 70 percent increase in technology.” 

Such a challenge almost sounds like a script worthy of a Mission Impossible episode.  The reality of the situation is that it is going to be quite a job for the less than 1 percent of Americans who claim production agriculture as their primary source of income.

For those of you banking on biotechnology as the probable savior of feeding the 9 billion of us in 2050 I would encourage you to go buy another lottery ticket – you might have better luck.  You see, biotechnology can only be part of the answer and that’s only if it is used wisely.  It is far from the total solution.

Just take a look at this year – the worst drought in a generation knocked average corn yields back over 30 percent in spite of all of our modern “genetics.”   We fell from an all-time high in 2009 of nearly 165 bushels per acre to barely clearing 120 bushels per acre this year once the counting is done.  Mother Nature just reminded us that we’re far from knowing it all!

In 1950 the average corn yield in the U.S. barely reached 40 bushels per acre.  By 1970 it was 80.  And as mentioned the high water mark came in 2009 – almost reaching 165 bushels per acre.  In essence, I would contend that there have been 3 technological “revolutions” that have propelled modern agriculture forward.

Technological “Revolutions”

First, there was the “Mechanical” Revolution that saw the switching out of the horse for horsepower.  Today my great grandfather who picked corn by hand with a team of horses and a wagon would be in awe of today’s modern, mechanized combines.

Second, there was the “Green” Revolution where hybrid seeds, commercial fertilizers and new chemistries fueled an agricultural abundance like no one had ever seen before.

Finally, the “Biotech” Revolution – where science unlocked the Holy Grail of the secrets of life.  For many it was the last turn on the Rubix’s Cube of agriculture.  With biotechnology anything was deemed possible – drought resistant crops, corn and cotton that make their own nitrogen and a “chicken in every pot.”

But even a company like Monsanto realizes that the biotechnology boon alone will not get us to 50, 100, 70.

So what kind of technology are we counting to increase production by 100 percent if it’s not primarily biotechnology?

That will come from the next revolution – the “Information” Revolution of agriculture.  This is the reason Monsanto bought the precision hardware company Precision Planting – it was to gather information from millions of acres.  It was to take that information and mine it, analyze it and scour it for the secrets that will lead agricultural production forward.  Putting all those “secrets” together, in the right order, is what is really needed to solve agriculture’s Rubix’s Cube.

Agriculture has a big job in front of it. And it’s not just about raising more.  It is about using “information” to farm smarter.  It is about growing more with less and preserving our land and resources for generations to come.  That’s the real mission that the modern agricultural producer must choose to accept.