In the next 50 years, agriculture will be asked to produce more food than in the previous 10,000 years, with no increase in water or arable land.
This has led to predictions since the 1960s of our impending inability to feed the world and the resulting increase in world death rate. Now, as drought conditions persist and as food security becomes more of a concern, dire predictions are back. To meet these challenges, a renewed focus on innovative agricultural research will be essential.
So how can we emphasize the importance of agricultural research? In the United States, it may be difficult. Farmers in the U.S. are the most productive in the world. The average U.S. citizen spends just 6.4 percent of his or her income on food, the lowest percentage when compared to other countries. Our low food prices and incredible productivity result from long-term dedication to agricultural research, great natural resources, outstanding growers and a network of processing, marketing and distribution second to none. The U.S. is also the top exporter of food products in the world.
Unfortunately, because the agricultural community has been so successful, publicly funded support for agricultural research is actually being reduced and even eliminated.
Because U.S. agriculture has become so efficient, only 2 percent of the population is actively involved in agriculture compared to about 40 percent 100 years ago. The general public – the other 98 percent – typically only gets excited about a subject when it hits pocket books.
Fortunately, some influential people are trying to raise awareness. Bill Gates stated in his 2012 annual foundation letter: “Given the central role that food plays in human welfare and national stability, it is shocking – not to mention short-sighted and potentially dangerous – how little money is spent on agricultural research.”
New Mexico is fortunate to have a state Legislature that values agricultural research and has worked to limit reductions to the state’s premier agricultural research organization, the Agricultural Experiment Station System at New Mexico State University.
Legislators’ faith in us is well founded when it comes to economic impact, too. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that every dollar spent on agricultural research generates $20 for the broader U.S. economy – a return on investment that is only a dream on Wall Street.
A related challenge is preservation of water, especially considering that production agriculture utilizes 70 percent of fresh water supplies. Water will almost certainly be the most constraining natural resource in meeting future food needs.
New Mexico is the ideal location to research more efficient delivery and use of limited water and to develop drought-tolerant crops able to produce higher yields with less water, with greater resistance to pests, heat and salinity and with improved nutrient use. Indeed, such research already is under way by Agricultural Experiment Station experts.
I have the honor of serving as director of NMSU’s Agricultural Experiment Station System, and these concerns are always on my mind. I have great confidence in our ability to tackle these challenges; we have outstanding faculty and staff who are committed to conducting research to improve the quality of life for New Mexicans.
With more than 110 faculty based in Las Cruces or at one of our 12 Agricultural Science Centers around the state, we are able to answer questions specific to the needs of New Mexicans. Our faculty work with colleagues in the university’s Cooperative Extension Service, who have offices in every county and specialists with statewide duties.
Today’s challenge is to remind national, state and local leaders of the importance of agriculture to our economy. I am hopeful we can invest in agricultural research rather than waiting until consumers face higher food costs and ask why we didn’t see this coming.
We at the Agricultural Experiment Station appreciate the support we have received and are committed to do our part in meeting these challenges.