Food security comes down to the nitty gritty: Dirt and money

When it comes to feeding the world’s population, most fundamental natural resource we have is our soil.

And it’s degrading away, said Jerry Hatfield, laboratory director and supervisory plant physiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture research service.

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Improving soil quality is an important factor in ensuring food security moving into the 21st century.
Photo/Tomas Castelazo

Through tilling (preparation of the soil for farming by mechanical agitation — digging, stirring, and overturning), we are also removing nutrients from the soil causing it to degrade, Hatfield said.

“We see a lot of areas across the upper-Midwest that because of tillage, not because of erosion, we’ve lost the equivalent of a foot of soil over the last 30, 40 years,” Hatfield said. “Every time we till that soil, we basically oxidize the organic matter that we put in over the whole growing season, back into the atmosphere in a short period of time,” he added.

This degradation means the soil holds less water and is more susceptible to erosion and to drought. In a period without rain, the soil’s decreased capacity to hold water causes great variations in crop yields—as much as 40 bushels [an acre]— in the same field.

Understanding how to improve the soil is crucial said Hatfield, who sees the natural resource as “the overlooked component in food security and sustainable agriculture.”

“We built a US agricultural system on adequate summer rainfall,” he said. “If summer rainfall begins to decrease and our soil resource begins to decrease….our agriculture production will become much more erratic,” Hatfield said.

Hatfield was just one of three speakers addressing the research and development needs for ensuring the nation and the world’s food security for the 21st century. Food sustainability was the focus of several panels at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago this weekend.

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Jerry Hatfield, laboratory director and supervisory plant physiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture research service on stage at AAAS Sunday.
Eva Voinigescu/MEDILL

Wendy Wintersteen, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University, spoke about the need for improved partnership between public and private institutions to improve agricultural efficiency and output, while Phillip Pardey, an economist at the University of Minnesota spoke about the changing landscape of food and agriculture research and development funding.

Increased funding for food and agricultural research and development is key to increasing productivity, said Pardey. But U.S. investment share in global food and agriculture R&D dropped from 21.3 percent in 1960 to 13.2 percent in 2009.

Meanwhile, the largest portion of worldwide spending on food and ag R&D (about a third of all funding) now comes from the Asia-Pacific region.

“We’ve shifted the location of agriculture massively over to the Asia-Pacific region which now accounts for about 48 percent of global value of agricultural production,” Pardey said. “Over this period of time the U.S. has lost about a third of its global market share in output. It’s ag sector has been growing but the rest of the world has been growing faster.”

This year’s updated farm bill establishes a non-profit corporation to advance agricultural research. That offers hope for increased funding for food and agricultural research and development in the U.S.

As Pardey said, however, “the future is always uncertain in the game of science, but what’s clear in these data is that we’re on the cusp of an emerging new world order in terms of…the location of where in the world public sector R&D takes place.”