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Photo: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/dannyboymalinga/4876920844"/>Dan Davison</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Photo: Dan Davison, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

How do farmers feed the world in the 21st century?

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By 2050, the planet will be supporting an estimated nine billion people. That number is from The Miner Institute, an agricultural research center in Chazy. Here's another: food production will have to rise 70 percent if all those people are to have enough to eat. But increased production won't be the only measure of success. All that food will have to be raised without degrading the environment.

Dr. John Bramley is a researcher and educator. He was president of the University of Vermont, as well as director of Vermont's agricultural experiment station. He'll talk about the challenges of feeding the world at the Miner Institute tonight. Martha Foley talked with Bramley this week.

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Martha Foley
News and Public Affairs Director

Why do American farmers think in terms of feeding the world? Is that our obligation?

First, the world is an increasingly connected place. "We are not alone on the planet"; what happens elsewhere in the world affects us and our lives. Food and water and land are going to become critical issues. They're going to create political uncertainty. They're going to stimulate revolt and changes of regime and territorial claims. It's in our interest, for a politically stable future, to address these challenges.

Secondly, America can be proud of innovations and developments that have been part of a "tremendous revolution" in agriculture. We have a varied diet, almost year round. That's not without its costs and challenges, but we are leaders in agricultural science and technology. "We have something to offer."

Sometimes the idea that America needs to feed the world turns up as an argument against the value of "small" alternative farms. What do you think about the cross-currents in the farming community?

There is no absolute truth that organic is better or big agribusiness is worse, or vice versa. There are challenges ahead. There are lessons we can learn from organic farms that are going to be very important for the sustainability of the planet. "Conventional" agriculture has contributed to productivity. And technology can help us meet the challenges of hotter, drier weather, limited water, and other issues.

We need to produce food "efficiently, economically and sustainably by a variety approaches."

Will "big ag" get us there?

We need to face the fact that we have limited space for food production. We don't have an infinite resource of land. The trick has to be to maintain high levels of productivity on the land we have, in ways that insure that we're not creating a disaster for future generations. That's the really big challenge.

What about the costs of farming? To water resources? Petrochemicals? And carbon emissions?

We use a lot of energy in agriculture. We've replaced human power with electricity, diesel and gasoline. Clearly that's going to become unaffordable, and affect the cost of food.

That's going to change the way we do things. The model we've got now is not necessarily the model of the future. But neither can afford to throw out the things we've done well.

Where do the answers come from? And the leadership for change?

I'm very confident of human ingenuity and ability. We're good at solving problems, seeing when we have to change, and then doing things differently. I'm not as confident that as a nation, or a world, we can make the tough decisions. We tend to kick the can down the road, and you can only do that for so long. Hopefully, we'll start to think and talk to others and politicians about these issues, and recognizing these challenge will force us to start making better more informed decisions.

Change will come. It's either going to be something we can embrace and take steps to achieve, or "it comes from other ways, like famine and war. And I think political consensus is probably a little better."

What questions do you get from "non-farmer" audiences?

A hundred years ago, 40-50 percent of people worked on the land, or close to. Now that's one percent or so. Most of us don't have a connection to food, or the land, don't understand how agriculture works. So one of the responsibilities we have is to put farming and how it's changed in context. Why has it changed? What are the good effects? What are the negatives? I find that's a way in to talking to non-farming audiences: talk about how we spend less for food than any other nation... while 18 percent of our people are described as being food insecure. People get interested in the contradictions, and then you can talk about other issues: GMOs, climate, or whatever.

My responsibility is not to say this is right, or this is wrong. But to try and help people try and understand the issues we're going to have to face, and some of the solutions that might exist.

The above is a summary of Martha and Dr. Bramley's conversation. To hear more, click on "Listen."

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