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Nutrients, Technology Key Players in Future of Food Production

CAST issue paper drives discussion about the role of nutrients, biofuels and population in the future of ag

Published on: Mar 19, 2013

The ongoing discussion about future food and fuel needs has reached a fever pitch in recent years as frequently cited United Nations data estimates nine billion people will call Earth home by 2050.

The challenge of feeding a growing population – and tackling meat and food demands of a growing middle class – is a task agricultural researchers have been pondering for some time. It's also a topic the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology in Ames, Iowa, has examined in a new issue paper, "Food Fuel and Plant Nutritient Use in the Future," released Monday.

There are a variety of factors that will play into the future of agriculture, with the most vital being food production ability and capacity, nutrient conservation and management, and biofuels' impact on feedstuff availability. Research commonly finds that each will be intertwined, creating a web of agricultural issues for the future.

CAST issue paper drives discussion about the role of nutrients, biofuels and population in the future of ag
CAST issue paper drives discussion about the role of nutrients, biofuels and population in the future of ag

Population growth

One of the most widely used figures for the future of world population is the estimate that there will be 9 billion mouths to feed globally by 2050. CAST paper authors point out that population growth and agriculture's response isn't a cut-and-dry topic; it will require estimation of food needs, availability of arable land, and nutrient availability. Moreover, the paper says, population shifts and changing tastes will further complicate future estimations.

Annual world consumption of cereals and food, the authors note, is expected to increase by 47% and 65%, respectively, from current levels to 2050. However, global meat and dairy consumption is projected to turn in a 97% increase. Most of the increase, paper authors write, will be in China, India and in South and East Asia, where growing wealth allows increased participation in meat and dairy markets.

As production must rise to meet demands, transportation and distribution outlets will continue to be stressed. Poor economies and troubled education systems, the report says, will require continued food aid. Countries with undernourished populations will only continue to grow; projections estimate that current population of 580 million undernourished people will rise to 1.4 billion by 2050.

Are genetics the answer?

Authors say genetics will play a big role in improving crop efficiency and promoting soil conservation and effective nutrient management. They may also be the key to unlocking higher yields using the same land area.

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The rate of growth in commodity supplies, and the rate of growth in productivity are inequitable, report authors write, citing a prior study on the topic. This has in turn fueled rising commodity prices that was exacerbated by underinvestment in ag research.

A victim of underinvestment, the report hypothesizes, could be genetically modified crops and the surrounding regulatory hurdles facing the technology.

A 2011 study cited in the CAST paper argues that adoption of GM varieties in corn could increase yields significantly, and could lower commodity prices. The study suggested that if Europe and Africa would adopt GM technology, food availability would improve and food prices would become more affordable.

"Continued capacity to provide food to meet growing demands requires an increase in investment of research as well as regulatory policies that will enable implementation of new technologies," the report says.

The authors warn, however, that there is continued uncertainty about the evolution of yield. Examples of uncertainty include climate change, which is expected to decrease yield; streamlining of GMO regulations, which could be caused by pressure from higher food prices; and projected intensification of agricultural production.

Energy and biomass come into play, too

The transition into new technologies is currently at a turning point. The root of the movement, the CAST report says, is the fact that the age of stable, cheap oil is over.

Report authors say the economy hinges on oil prices: recession leads to lower oil prices; lower oil prices promote economic recovery, thereby increasing oil demand; oil prices rise in turn, stopping the emerging recovery and returning to recession.

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A vicious cycle, right? But researchers write that cellulosic biofuels may provide promise for energy independence. These new biofuels could be designed to coproduce animal feeds and recover and recycle mineral nutrients.

Additionally, they make the case that crop and forage residues used for cellulosic biofuel production can be harvested without requiring more land. Further, they estimate that annually, at least 1.5 billion tonnes of residues are already available worldwide.

Inevitably, the age-old food vs. fuel debate appears. But the authors say second-generation fuels – like cellulosic fuels – are much less likely to impact food prices because production of the fuels can be integrated with production of animal feeds and enhanced by growing and harvesting double or cover crops.

"Resolving the apparent 'food versus fuel' conflict seems to be more a matter of making the right choices rather than hard resource and technical constraints," the authors say.

They propose that one of those 'choices' could be to recover plant nutrients, such as N, P and K, by burning fermentation residue from biofuel production and spreading the concentrated ash on land.

Nutrients not to be left behind

Though the food versus fuel debate may have a light at the end of the tunnel, CAST researchers were quick to point out that nutrients in the soil – those responsible for nourishing the cover crops, cellulosic feedstocks and grain crops needed to produce more food or consume directly – are a key part of harvesting top yields.

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Commercial fertilizers, they say, are responsible for 40% to 60% of current U.S. food production. And, for more than 40 years, removal of the three primary plant nutrients by crops in the U.S. has been increasing linearly at rates of 70,000; 51,000; and 67,000 Mt of N, P and K per year, respectively.

Application of new fertilizers have been enough to sustain cropping practices as of recent, but the report authors note that nutrient budget deficits must stabilize in the future to encourage enhanced productivity. Further, additional nutrients used as part of bioenergy cropping will amplify the need for P and K resources. One option: improved filters for waste streams and farm runoff.

Nitrogen isn't out of the woods, either, researchers write. By 2050, N use is projected to increase 44% from current levels. Precision applications are offered as a way to minimize N use, though the report notes that even technology won't eliminate N applications.

Though precision farming, genetic modification, and cellulosic fuel technologies offer promise for feeding and fueling the next generations, authors reinforce that biofuel demand has a heavy hand in nutrient use. Research and development, they say, could be the best bet for integrating the food, feed and fuel industries for maximum efficiency and nutrient recovery.

CAST paper authors include David Zilberman, University of California–Berkeley; Paul E. Fixen, International Plant Nutrition Institute; Bruce Dale, Michigan State University; and John L. Havlin, North Carolina State University.

A full copy and can be downloaded here.