Growing world population poses challenges to American agriculture

Corn stalks stand tall against the sunrise, ready for harvest on Sept. 29, 2015. (Emily Starkey | The Collegian)

“We have to consider the really dire situation that we are in, in terms with population growth and resources,” said Jagger Harvey, director of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss at Kansas State. “By 2050 there will be up to 8.3 billion people in the world.”

Harvey said that number shows almost exclusively what the population growth will be in developing countries.

“If we consider the state of the world right now, we have made grand steps forward and great advances,” Harvey said.

There are also very significant challenges, he said one of those being that we have to produce 50 percent more food, in the context of climate change and a number of other complexities.

Thomas Albers, owner of a small family farm in northeast Kansas, said that in June, there was a small drought that hurt his corn.

Luckily the crops weren’t affected by hail, flood or insect damage, Albers said.

Four countries were chosen for Feed the Future projects: Ghana in Sudano-Sahelian West Africa, Ethiopia in the Ethiopian Highlands, Guatemala in the Western Highlands and Bangladesh in the South Asia Indo-Gangetic Plains, according to the Feed the Future Innovation Lab page on K-State’s website.

Harvey said the innovation labs are proactively working on a variety of pests and diseases before they hit the United States, and they are gaining access to germplasm for future breeding use.

The innovation labs have helped stimulate demand and they are opening trade opportunities for U.S. producers, Harvey said.

With direct application to domestic farm operations, they are developing technologies and methodologies. This is allowing for feedback to the U.S. private sector on potential new materials for their technologies. Through new developments, national security is also being enhanced, Harvey said.

Harvey said the technical focus areas are drying, storage and losses, which concerns physical threshing, insect pests and mycotoxins.

Mike Meyers, a farm owner from Ulysses, Kansas, said his big harvest loss came from the decreases in price for corn.

“Last year it was $4.50 (per bushel) and now it’s down to $3, but I didn’t really have any major harvest loss,” Meyers said. “It may have been down five bushel from last year.”

Meyers grows alfalfa, wheat and corn.

Albers said he tries to prevent crop loss by continuing to pay crop insurance, spraying fungicide, rebuilding terraces and filling in ditches with dirt. He has 200 acres of corn and 140 acres of soybeans, but said he didn’t lose much from mud holes in the fields.

“It will be interesting to see how the innovation labs will solve problems in other countries and use the research to solve problems we have here,” Meyers said.

Harvey said it has been estimated that there is a one-third loss of crops in developing countries. Not only have there been losses in quantity, but quality and economic losses as well.

“Aflatoxin is a significant threat to food and nutritional security,” Harvey said. “It can cause cancer, stunt children’s development, nutrient uptake and immunosuppression just by chronic exposure.”

Harvey said acute exposure has lead to death in Kenya because of outbreaks.

Jason Ellis, associate professor of communications and agricultural education, said his research component has been focused on smallholder farmer education.

“We are helping them realize the importance of grain drying and storage techniques for preventing insect infestation and mycotoxin grown and contamination,” Ellis said.

Integrated approaches in other countries have created adapted storage technologies, solar mass hybrid dryers and a U.S. Department of Agriculture ARS moisture meter.

“There is tremendous promise to address food security,” Harvey said.