A recently released report on climate change from the United Nations contains the usual warnings about the future, from melting polar caps to chronic heat waves. It also emphasizes the threat of less food on a planet with more people.
“This is a wake-up call for the agriculture sector,” says Craig Hanson of the World Resources Institute, in a New York Times account of the forecast from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
At least one of the IPCC’s claims is remarkably specific: Climate change already has depressed corn yields by 1 percent.
This may or may not be true. I haven’t crunched the numbers and won’t dispute them. My personal experience, however, suggests that the best way forward lies through advances in technology and letting farmers have access to them.
I’ve farmed my whole life, and I’ve done it professionally since 1970. I’m blessed to work in central Illinois, which contains some of the world’s most fertile soil. In a couple of weeks, I’ll begin a new season of planting corn and soybeans across a little more than 3,000 acres.
When I started to farm more than four decades ago, we hoped that each acre of corn would yield close to 150 bushels but we often topped out at 135. The most productive fields—the record-setting ones on other farms—might inch past 200 bushels per acre.
Today, anything less than 200 bushels per acre is a disappointment for me. Under the right conditions, our top fields generate 230 bushels per acre. I haven’t touched 300 bushels per acre, but several farmers I know have and I hope to get there eventually.
So we’ve come a long way. If my farming in 2014 produces a result that I would have regarded as excellent in 1970, I’ll consider it a poor harvest.
What explains the improvement? The main factor is seed technology. Scientists know a lot more about plant genetics today and they’ve used their knowledge to turn out excellent seeds that grow into healthy plants. Since the 1990s, we’ve also taken advantage of biotechnology and genetic modification. Every year, we upgrade our ability to fight weeds, pests, and drought.
Other technologies also have mattered. Our equipment helps us cover more fields in less time than ever before. We’re also planting individual seeds with incredible precision, allowing us to make the most of the soil and its nutrients.
Perhaps the IPCC is correct and small variations in the weather have put negative pressure on our ability to grow crops. My own farming, however, suggests that technology has pushed hard in the other direction, more than compensating for the problem.
The lesson is obvious: Even in a world of changing climates, we must continue to develop new agriculture technologies that will allow us to grow more food on less land as we adapt to changing conditions. As a corollary, we must make sure that farmers are able to access these technologies—and that our regulations rely on sound science rather than the political fear mongering that so often plagues innovation.
Shortly after the IPCC report came out, Eduardo Porter of the New York Times invoked the name of Thomas Malthus, the 18th-centry economist who warned about population growth and resource depletion. Malthus is one of those names that many of us dimly recall from history class, and we associate the word “Malthusian” with famine and death.
Does climate change really point to an era of Malthusian misery?
A new biography shows that we’ve misunderstood the man. In “Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet,” published last week by Oxford University Press, author Robert J. Mayhew points out that Malthus was optimistic about the human future. He worried about hunger. Yet he was also a clergyman who thought that our God-given powers of reason would help us solve problems and find balance with the world’s resources.
As we strive for food security in the 21st century, we must confront our challenges rather than despair over them. I’m hopeful that new technologies will help farmers continue to adapt to changing conditions. We must remember that success is a choice—and that even Thomas Malthus would be on our side, cheering us on.
Daniel Kelley grows corn and soybeans on a family farm near Normal, IL. He volunteers as a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).
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