Feeding future populations is the issue at 2012 Commissioner’s Series kick-off session

On March 21, during Agriculture Awareness Week, a panel met with Steve Troxler, state agriculture commissioner, to discuss the topic “Feeding the World in 2020.” Held in Riddick Hall on the N.C. State University campus, the event was the first of two sessions in this year’s Commissioner’s Speaker Series, hosted by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Agricultural Institute, student organizations Agri-Life Council and Alpha Zeta, and the CALS Alumni and Friends Society.

Joining Troxler in March were panelists Norris Tolson, N.C. Biotechnology Center; Julie Groce, Novartis Animal Science; farmers John Vollmer and Reggie Strickland; and Dr. David Smith, CALS associate dean and director of the N.C. Agricultural Research Service.

Steve Troxler

Starting things off, Troxler talked about how much food will be required to feed world populations in 2020 and beyond. “We’re going to need 50 percent more food in 2030 – and 70 percent more by 2050. That’s a monumental task for agriculture and agribusiness to take on,” he said. “Everybody is wrapped up in today, but we’ve got to think about the future. In the age of agribusiness, we’ve got to get into that mode.”

Troxler then turned to his panelists to talk about the subject from the perspectives of agriculture production, global agribusiness and marketing, agricultural research and ag biotechnology.

Tolson, president and CEO of the N.C. Biotechnology Center, began his segment, “How Biotech Will Help Feed the World,” by defining biotechnology as a scientific toolbox using living cells to make products and solve problems, spanning from agriculture to pharmaceuticals. Biotech helps heal, fuel and feed the world, with new medicines, bio-based sources for fuel, more nutritious foods, drought-resistant crops, higher yields and land restoration efforts, he said, “and agriculture is a big piece of it.”

Norris Tolson

Ag biotech has quite a presence in this state, he said, with more than 80 companies – including five of the top six companies, BASF, Bayer CropScience, DuPont/Pioneer, Monsanto and Syngenta – and more than 4,000 employees. 

And when there’s a 9 billion population in 2050, he said, the problem is how to grow more abundant food on the same amount of land or less. When there’s about 100 percent more food needed, he said, 70 percent of that increase will have to come from technology – for new practices to improve farming techniques; for new products, tools, technologies; for genetics to enhance desired crop traits.

“As we look at the challenges we face in agriculture – farmers face more competition for water and for land – and as we look at this increased food need, it becomes an impossible task, unless we use biotechnology. We have the capability in America to feed America and a good part of the rest of the world, and ag biotech can provide those products.”

Introducing David Smith, Troxler noted the close working relationship between the university and the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “There are 18 research stations across North Carolina,” Troxler said. “N.C. State has six, and the NCDA&CS has 12, but the citizens of the state own all of them.”

David Smith

Smith then spoke about the value of agricultural research and how it affects the economy beyond agriculture. He chronicled the many ways land-grant universities such as N.C. State have impacted state economies, in the 150 years since the passage of the Morrill Act created the funding to establish land-grants in every state. “Before then, 50 percent of the country was involved in farming to produce food to feed its people. Well, an ag revolution is needed before you can have an industrial revolution.”

In some of the poorest countries, agriculture accounts for 50 percent of the gross product, Smith said. It’s important to have the workforce freed from agriculture, so they can do other work for the economy, he said.

What the research at the land-grants made possible was the technology, the shared know-how to increase yield, increase food production. Fewer farmers were needed to grow the food, so it freed up people from subsistence farming to farming for sale to others or even to moving into other modes of work.            

“Now 1 percent of our population is involved in farming, “Smith said, “but 100 percent is still involved in eating.”  Moreover, agricultural productivity is now three times what it was in the 1940s, with no more land, Smith said. “North Carolina is in the upper percentile in productivity gains since 1948, and we at N.C. State take credit for that.”

Moreover, he said, “the benefit to cost ratio in N.C. for research and extension is 19.1 to 1 over the life of the technology. This means for each dollar invested in research, there is a $19.90 return.” Thus agricultural research is a means toward an efficient affordable agriculture in the future.

Speaking to students in the room, he said, “I challenge you as employees in ag to feed the people in 50 years.” And he mentioned one area of focus: “Whatever we can do to increase the efficiency of the water we can capture and apply is going to be important in the future.”

Said Troxler, “The strongest economy in the world is right here [in the United States], and if we want it to stay that way, ag research has to stay strong.”

Julie Groce

Julie Groce of Novartis Animal Science then offered a look at the topic from an animal agriculture perspective, specifically her background in livestock production. “Today one farmer feeds 155 people. In the 1960s, the number was only 25. Now, 925 million people are hungry every hour. By 2050, the world’s population will grow by 9.3 billion. We’ll need to double food production, and more meat will be needed. How are we going to feed them? The answer is advancements in ag science and technology,” she said.

This will include the adoption of the latest in modern farming practices, because “there is not enough tillable land to do the job,” she said. So technology will be needed in food and livestock production.

But what she seemed to suggest as the key to the future is more people who love agriculture and aspire to be in agribusiness, like the students present that day. “This is my challenge to you” she said. “We need aggies. Less than 2 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas. Less than 2 percent actually produce food for our country and many areas of the world.

“Most of our population is getting generations removed from the family farm. Tell the ag story and answer questions. Renew the interest in where our food comes from.”

John Vollmer

Next up was John Vollmer, sustainable organic farmer and a panelist tailor-made to talk about agricultural renewal, because he essentially reinvented his family farm to ensure its future viability.

From Vollmer Farms in Bunn, he was a third-generation tobacco and small-grain farmer who, in the 1990s, recognized the need to diversify his operation from its traditional focus on tobacco. He also realized organic production – and looking after the environment in the process — might just be the way to go. He diversified to raise strawberries, pumpkins, blueberries and other organic varieties. By 2011, the Carolina Farm Stewards Association had named John and Betty Vollmer its Farmers of the Year, in recognition of their contributions to organic agriculture in North Carolina.

“I grew up on a tobacco farm, same farm I’m on now,” Vollmer told the audience. “Faced with regulation, the farm had to change what it was doing, so little by little we embraced the idea of sustainable organic. I want to see my family farm be a family farm for generations to come.”

Because he once both sold and used seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, he knew the dangers of mishandling and misapplication. “When we know better, we’re obligated to do better, to protect against pesticides,” he said. “Our farm is now 100 percent organic in terms of the crops we produce, with the exception of asparagus.”

Organic farming also turned out to be an excellent business decision for the Vollmers. “We saw we could find a place on the market with our organic strawberries,” he said. “When we take them to the Durham farmers market, people come running! We are finding the niche markets that are allowing us to take the farm to the next generation.”

Applying his experience in sustainable ag to the session’s topic, Vollmer put it in terms of future oil supplies and the use of oil for agricultural tools and equipment. “Agriculture today is based on oil, and we have to change it. We’re going to have to move to organic practices in order to sustain it,” he said.

This move, he said, will require a coming together of biotech, with its GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and organic, which says no to GMOs. “It’s not an all or nothing thing. We have to bring our best minds together” he said, offering as example the CALS Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) in Goldsboro.

Reggie Strickland

The final panelist was Sampson County farmer Reggie Strickland, who shared his experience in working with international markets. The 1987 CALS agribusiness management graduate and N.C. Pork Council and N.C. Soybean Producers Association member is a seventh-generation family farmer at Strickland Farming, where the family raises hogs and grows 3,000 acres of row crops.

Strickland listed various possible issues to face in feeding the world in the years ahead:  infrastructure (the need for improvement of ports and of the road systems on which products travel to them), investment in research, affordable guest worker programs, crop herbicide resistance, farm bill changes and government regulations. “We must continue to fund research to be on the cutting edge of new technologies to feed the world,” he said.

He also said that new global markets promise future opportunities for U.S. agribusiness: “By 2030, China will have more people in its middle class than the entire U.S. population. The world demand for food and fiber will continue to grow. I hope Strickland Farming will be up to the challenge.”

The series’ next session, “How Agriculture Policy Impacts Our Lives and Agriculture,” is scheduled for 5 p.m., April 11 at Riddick, with a reception to follow. Scheduled to join Troxler on the April panel are Peter Daniel, N.C. Farm Bureau; Sue Langdon, N.C. SweetPotato Commission; Gary Gay, NCDA&CS Food Distribution; N.C. Sen. Brent Jackson; and N.C. Rep. Efton Sager. – Terri Leith

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