Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Sustaining 7 Billion: A report on the 2011 Annual Meeting of the Agronomy, Crop Science, and Soil Science Societies.

Sustaining 7 Billion: A report on the 2011 Annual Meeting
of the Agronomy, Crop Science, and Soil Science Societies.

by James Giese

Sometime, approximately this week, the world population will reach 7 billion, according to U.N. Population Fund report. [pdf]

With this milestone and the expectation that world population could double by 2100, more than 4,100 agronomists, crop scientists, and soil scientists gathered in San Antonio, TX Oct. 16-20 to present research results and discuss the challenges for agriculture and environmental research and discuss the strain on our natural resources.

What would be the impact of an “intensified” green revolution on global food security? Can we produce enough food for 7 billion sustainably? How can soil help lessen the impacts of climate change? What alternatives are there to add diversity to current large-scale cropping systems? These topics and others were discussed at the International Annual Meetings of the American Society of Agronomy (ASA), Crop Science Society of America (CSSA), and Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) in San Antonio, TX. The Societies, which are based in Madison, WI, hosts more than 4,000 researchers, educators, extension professionals, and students from around the world each year in a venue for research presentations and collaboration.

This year’s meeting was also the 75th Anniversary of the Soil Science Society and was celebrated with a variety of events, including a public outreach campaign, called “I Heart Soil,” to raise awareness about soils and the role they have in ecosystems. Founded in 1936, as soils were increasingly being recognized as a critical ecosystem element, the society continues to help its members advance the field of soil science through outreach to teachers, undergraduate and graduate students, and members around the world.

Although it is difficult to summarize the wide range of the more than 1,200 research presentations at the meeting, some common themes were presented. Most of these themes centered around the perceived need to boost agricultural production while maintaining or decreasing the impacts on the environment.

Keynote speaker, Prabha Pingali, Gates Foundation, discussed the implications of global agricultural development and recent trends in how aid organizations are funding research. The older generation can understand how the “Green Revolution” was funded, but the situation is much different now than it was in the 1960s. Increased population, tight food markets, increased food price volatility, and the increased effects of climate change on food production is making the today’s needs even more difficult. The aid budget for agricultural is only 4% of total overall development aid and only recently has been increased and is still lower than what it was in 1990. Pingali described how the returns to investments in R&D have been high and continue to be high, especially in Asia and Latin America.

According to Pingali, developing effective extension models and viable input supply systems are essential components of an effective delivery model. And, history has shown that smallholder farmers are just as willing to adopt new technologies as their larger counterparts, however the technology has to target their unique needs and problems. It is important to recognize that future gains in the application of agricultural research are going to come from the ability to successfully tackle truly difficult problems in developing country agriculture systems, such as drought tolerance, high-temperature tolerance, and mismanagement of soil fertility. And, ultimately, the failure of agricultural aid has not been in the generation of technology but in its delivery to farmers’ fields.

Charles W. Rice, Kansas State University and this year’s president of the Soil Science Society, discussed how soil is the foundation of all terrestrial ecosystems. Ecosystem services provided by soil promote human health and nutrition, mitigate climate change, protect the environment, and ensure sustainable food and bioenergy production. The challenges for soil scientists in the coming decades are the role of soils in food and energy security; climate change; waste treatment and water quality; and human and ecosystem health. Soil scientists need to promote their discipline and the societal relevance of their research; and be able to communicate with non-scientists.

Two very interesting symposia, focused on locally-based agriculture and techniques developed to assist small farms in agronomic management. During the symposium, Locally-Based Adaptive Management: Impacts and Challenges for Feeding the World, the idea surfaced that although we tend to rely on technology in agriculture, there is no universal, magic bullet solution, which is why we need to maintain a focus on locally adapted solutions and management. Also, the practice of “precision agriculture” has witnessed unprecedented growth in the last decade, especially in the developed countries such as the United States, Europe and others.

While the rest of the world has been relatively slow in embracing precision agricultural practices, the change is coming. Raj Khosla, Colorado State University, posed the question that with increasing global population and limited or decreasing arable land available for crop production “will we be able to overcome future challenges such as food security and climate change and seize them as opportunities?” and “could precision agriculture be part of the solution in addressing this grand challenge of food security of our times?”

The session, Practice and Training in Field Diagnosis of Small Holder Agriculture: What Works? had presentations from a wide variety of researchers on technologies and approaches that work to diagnose and solve farming problems in developing countries. However, these same techniques could be used on small farms in the developed countries as well.

Smallholder farms in developing countries can be highly diverse and may be subject to extremes of soil properties rarely encountered in temperate, industrial agriculture. In addition, smallholders’ resources and in-country lab facilities are usually extremely limited. Some of the techniques presented included using Internet and mobile phone based tools to rapidly acquire essential information from farmers and then calculate and deliver to customized soil nutrient and other guidelines for their fields; surveying and quantifying dairy herd structure, feed inputs, milk and manure outputs and overall resources use in small-holder dairy farming systems; and using mobile phone-based IR scanning technology to diagnose soil properties In the field.

A variety of speakers used the term, “sustainable intensification.” This idea was highlighted in the symposium, “Sustainable Intensification and the Feed the Future Initiative: Lessons Learned and the Way Forward.” The Feed the Future Initiative includes investments in developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to sustainably intensify and diversify agricultural production to reduce hunger and poverty. The program is being conducted through both research and non-research approaches, to advance the sustainable intensification of agricultural systems.

Key researchable areas that need to be integrated within the target systems include agronomy, soil fertility, water resource management, pest management, market access and policies. The discussion focused on how to integrate experiences and lessons from the field into the Feed the Future Initiative, recognizing that the causes of poverty and under-nutrition are complex and influence not only whether and how new production practices and technologies are adopted, but also the sustainability of adopting new approaches, practices, and technologies.

The final thought from the meeting: Feeding a growing population in a hotter world will require exploiting a far broader range of crop and soil management techniques — and this will have to be applied sustainably.


James Giese is the Director of Science Communications, American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and Soil Science Society of America. He may be reached at jgiese@sciencesocieties.org

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