Sunday, July 7, 2019

Feeding the World and Complex Issues

Sometimes the weather cooperates.  The photo above is of a field of grain sorghum (I grew up calling it milo) near Amarillo, Texas, that was taken late last summer.  It is one of the most uniform fields I have ever seen.  If you look closely, there are no signs of disease, or insect damage on the leaves.  The field was planted using minimum-tillage equipment that leaves the remains of the previous crop of wheat stubble intact.  The plant stubble on the field helps to hold moisture in the ground rather than opening it up to evaporation.  The field appears to be weedless as you look across it.

As I view this field I am impressed with what I see.  The crop is extremely uniform.  I recall growing up how there would frequently be odd varieties of plants sticking up here and there in a field of grain sorghum.  The seed in this case must have been very clean with no stray varieties mixed in, or someone spent a lot of time manually removing any that grew.

Fields like this lend themselves easily to automation.  The uniformity is important for utilizing the economies of scale in large equipment that can cover many acres quickly.  The product (grain) will be of the highest quality as long as weather cooperates through the harvest.

This field is also likely home to many hundreds of pheasants.  After the harvest, the birds will be able to easily access seeds that may have fallen to the ground.  The field may also be either grazed by cattle, or the stubble harvested for hay.  Milo butts, if supplemented with protein, can be a good source of energy for cattle.

So, what are the downsides of this type of massive scale agriculture?  One is that the monoculture crop places the entire field at risk to adverse events such as weather, insects, or disease.  Another is that the removal of this much plant material (if the stalks are utilized for hay) means a greater need for the addition of fertilizers.  If grazed, the organic material in the manure adds back to the soil as a rich source of highly available nutrients.

As evidenced by the wheat stubble covering the ground, this crop is part of a rotation system employed by the farmer.  Changing the crop grown on a regular basis helps to mitigate disease and insect risk.

This type of farming requires huge capital investment, but it is highly efficient and part of the reason that U.S. farms are so productive.  In spite of that productivity, due to the capital requirements, the farm is likely only marginally profitable in most years.  It is the result of tremendous scientific advance, although most of that advance is not obvious to the casual observer.

Industrial scale farming is probably not the answer for many parts of the world -- yet.  Perhaps someday.  It is the result of many years of a slow process of advance from subsistence to scale and requires massive amounts of capital to achieve.  As we look at growing populations throughout the world, we need to be cautious about focusing on this single model to resolve the food issues we will face in coming years.  It is my opinion that we should consider a phased approach to move less-advanced agricultural economies by stages into this level of production and we must remain mindful of the social and environmental impacts it will have.

Where the field in this narrative exists was once a prairie ecosystem of short grasses adapted to low rainfall.  The primary large animal was the American Bison.  In a way, what we have described is similar to the way it was 200 years ago -- a field of grass (yes, grain sorghum is a grass) grazed by ungulates.  Today, we add the additional step of harvesting the grain for human consumption.  The natural ecosystem tended to build soil, whereas the current one tends to deplete it.  That is one of the pieces we need to figure out -- how can we have industrial scale agriculture without the need for artificial fertilizers?  Livestock, also utilized for food, may be part of the answer.  They are highly efficient converters of plant material to usable protein.

I've rambled a bit this morning.  The answers to how we produce our food are complex.  Sustainability must include profit in order for there to be advances, but it also must balance the long-term factors such as soil health, resource depletion, capital requirements, labor vs. automation, impact on water and air and myriad other things.  The future of agriculture is bright and attracting some of the best minds to solve these types of issues.  It will be interesting to see the advances just over the horizon.

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