The Des Moines Register
The annual World Food Prize ceremony in Des Moines brings together people from all over the world to focus on how to feed an exploding world population. An unspoken assumption is that we have little to learn in the United States, especially in Iowa, which should serve as a model for the world.
But that is not the case, as we were reminded in a conversation with two of the most influential leaders in global agriculture this week. This country produces a bounty of food, but it still has something to learn about producing food in an efficient and environmentally sustainable way.
That is the message gleaned from a 90-minute conversation at The Des Moines Register with Paul Schickler, president of DuPont Pioneer, the global seed genetics company with headquarters and primary research facilities in Johnston; and Howard Buffett, president of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, who operates family farms in Nebraska and Illinois and oversees research farms in Illinois, Arizona and South Africa.
Both agree that the global challenge is not just exporting U.S. agricultural products but exporting this nation’s agricultural know-how.
The United States is blessed not only with a favorable and varied climate but the necessary plant science and agricultural infrastructure. Government is a key factor in this success, Buffett contends, because of the historic public investment in that infrastructure and university research and agricultural extension programs over the past 250 years.
“It couldn’t be done without the government,” Buffett said. Governments of nations that are catching up have made that a national priority, such as Brazil, which has set a goal of becoming a leading exporter. The failure to duplicate U.S. successes in many African countries, apart from depleted soils and climate challenges, is the failure of governments to orchestrate the transformation.
Government policy also drives farming practices in this country, but not always in the right direction. The current farm bill that subsidizes farmers does not do nearly enough to encourage farmers to practice good conservation, Buffett said. “Look at the hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico,” the product of agricultural chemical runoff that is killing ocean marine life. “We are depleting the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska. We have got to get our arms around this. We have the capability to get our arms around this, but we aren’t even close.”
Farmers should farm in a way that protects their land for future generations, not just for their own families but for everyone who needs what farmers produce. Buffett should not be mistaken for a misty-eyed environmentalist. He farms or oversees 3,000 acres of cropland in Nebraska and Illinois. Yet, he is a tireless evangelist for sustainable farming: “My farm may be my ground, but it’s also a national asset.”
Both Buffett and Schickler say education is critical to these issues. “We need talent across all areas of agriculture to feed an additional 2 billion people in the next 30 to 40 years,” Schickler said. Yet, he said agricultural education been deemphasized at the universities, and government support for public universities like Iowa State University is declining.
The United States still has a lot to show the rest of the world. But this country faces many of the same challenges of growing more food on a fixed amount of land in an era of climate change and growing demand. It can help the world catch up, but it should also set an example so that other countries will avoid the mistakes we have made.