It is my opinion that more and more is written, posted, and tweeted about food and food issues than ever before. Consequently, farmers and those who supply farmers are being brought to the forefront of society both in the United States and around the world. We in the industry of all things Food are being pulled on onto the world stage for all to see. However, if we would stop and consider for a moment, food and the ability to have it when needed, has always been on the minds of societies and governments. I can remember a conversation I had with a good farmer friend of mine one time on food security with him saying, “Wars were won by food, in fact, some wars never got fought because of the lack of food. (The enemy was starved out to surrender) Might I say, “Eric, your insight into history shows well on farmers and how they view the needs of all of us.”
As far back as Biblical times, and before, the strength and wisdom of nations have been tested by the preparation for lack of food. Genesis 41 provides perhaps the most well-known example of a nation preparing for lean times as Joseph, the captured Israelite, is given the not so small task of preparing the nation of Egypt for the famine that would come when he interpreted the Pharaoh’s dream. The power of food is literally fundamental to the survival of man.
Fast forward to the turn of the 19th century, and we are again bringing up food and food security just like we did about 100 years ago during the the 1898 Inaugural address of the British Academy of Science by Sir William Crookes when he declared, “England and all civilized nations stand in deadly peril”. At the time it is estimated that the world had about 1.6 billion people and the fear was that the British empire could not be kept in wheat as all the world had now been developed. Man’s understanding of the finer things of the resources of the earth had been pushed to their limit, we were literally running out of manure to fertilize the crops and were running down our soils in the process. So began the story of Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch and the Haber-Bosch process for anhydrous ammonia production. In the year 1913, just over one century ago, commercial, chemical fertilizer production began in earnest. It is very possible that mass starvation could have happened had this invention not been created.
Fast forward another 100 years, and 6 billion people
The consumer, the self-proclaimed environmentalist, the farmer, scientist, supplier and the legislator all have skin in the game…literally. The United States, being the single largest supplier of coarse grains to the world, has perhaps the biggest juggling act and adjustment to make of any nation. The actions and farming methods of the past 80 years have brought us to a point on the timeline of humanity that is showing us that “times are a changin'” Styles must change if we are to maintain a sustainable environment for future generations. Lake Erie, Des Moines Water Authority are the most recent two incidents that come to mind. What used to be an “east coast thing” of water quality, Federal Clean Water Act, and the Chesapeake Bay has very abruptly and quickly forced itself on the breadbasket of America and the world. Google and technology are a powerful thing and as people become more food and farm conscious the actions of our food system will be brought more and more in the realm of public opinion.
It will take thoughtful, deliberate action to help us wade through the waters we are now entering. If we stray too far to the one side, we could quickly find ourselves in the midst of “food police” and the Social(ism) of food. Stray to the other side and we find ourselves continuing to push our environment more and more in a “J Curve” pattern of unsustainability with a potential crash similar to what Thomas Malthus talked about. (Yes, Malthus was talking about population of a society but the theory still applies, particularly to food as that is what Malthus was most concerned about.)
So, how is the food chain adapting?
Farming is the interaction of God, man and nature
As the public becomes more interested in food and how it is produced, it will become imperative to help them learn the basics so that a basic grasp of concepts so that well informed decisions and opinions can be made. I have read comments that claim that GMO is the same as fertilizer that is the same as something else. While the zeal for becoming informed is commendable, the lack of knowledge in the days of social media can become a bad combination, especially when it comes to something as basic as food.
Back in 2010 I had the opportunity to take a tour of the Mosaic phosphate mine in Bartow, FL. Commonly used, phosphorous fertilizers are produced from ore mined out of the ground and then refined to a grade suitable for fertilizer use. Such fertilizers are an integral part of food production across the entire world. One thing that bears mentioning is that plants must have nutrients to grow, just as we must consume our nutrients, called food, in order for us to stay alive. The amount of growth by a seed can be staggering. The typical corn plant that we know today must grow over 1000% in size from the kernel all the way to the mature plant. That is no small task! The amount of nutrients required to grow crops is massive and the industry is working to help educate farmers, around the entire world, on how to grow a more sustainable crop by using fertilizers in a more stewardly manner. All along we are continually coming to grips with the fact that the billions an billions of microbes in the soil are what truly make soil “alive” for good crops and help to reduce dependency on added fertilizers, sprays, and other expenses.
The days of “if a little is good, more must be better” when it comes to farming are coming to an end. The days of applying large amounts of fertilizer across every acre are just about a thing of the past. The Midwest may have to do away with fall applied ammonia and fall spread broadcast fertilizer someday so we can have cleaner water. The ramifications on the entire fertilizer supply chain in the United States will be daunting. We simply can’t get enough fertilizer to the dealers who supply the farmers quick enough if we keep doing things the same way. Something will have to change. Will small dealerships close to make way for very large facilities that have large enough storage of their own to help meet the demand? Let us certainly hope that we do not lose more retail outlets in the United States to consolidation as competition is what helps to bring innovation to the industry. Will we create GMO crops that make their own fertilizer? In doing so the food production industry will stand to face another round of consolidations, now bridging the realms of seed and fertilizer suppliers. This can be ill afforded as we have Dow and DuPont merging the Mycogen and Pioneer brands. Will we shift our crop matrix so as to produce less of some crops and more of others, and there by help soften some of the very concentrated peaks in demand? Perhaps this could be a part of a broader solution.
We need to allow the farmer and those who serve him time to prepare for what it is that the consumer and legislature will enact upon him. It would not be out of the realm of consideration to see some sort of substantial regulation take place that would eliminate the ability to apply fertilizer when there is not a crop in the ground.
Since 2012 more has come to light relative to water quality and pressures will only continue to mount. It will take a strong, steady hand that is resolute to making the day to day decisions that help guide agriculture; and most importantly, protect the farmer so that the he or she can continue to be an independent business person, which serves the need of the paying customer, benevolently helps neighbors near or far, and bearing testimony to the God of Creation by being the steward that God called him to be.
Thanks for reading!