The Challenge of our Generation

October 18, 2011

October 31, 2011 marks a milestone that might be far more frightening than the ghosts and goblins that will be roaming the streets that night.

According to an official United Nations report, the world’s population will peak at 7 billion people on that day.  And future projections show a rapid ascent to 9 billion by 2050.

Such population numbers are astounding since there were just 4 billion people spanning the globe when most Generation X’ers were born in the ‘70s.

Normally, the birth of such an historic baby would be cause for celebration.  But it also begs the question: Will there be enough food, fiber, and fuel to go around?

The answer to that question holds serious political ramifications.  That’s because food insecurity is a recipe for civil unrest, which makes the world a less peaceful place and could ultimately threaten our national security.

That’s not simply a matter of opinion, either.  Earlier this year, National Public Radio reported, “rising food prices can topple governments, too.”  It surmised that political instability in some countries was fueled by “dramatic price hikes for basic foodstuffs, such as rice, cereals, cooking oil and sugar.”

But it’s not just food and fiber production that will be a challenge moving forward.  As countries like China, Brazil, and India advance into the middle class and expand their buying power, their appetite for energy grows as well, straining global oil supplies and sending prices at the pump upwards.  U.S. biofuels become even more important under that scenario.

America’s agricultural industry must be at the forefront of finding solutions, but experts say we’ll have to increase production between 70-100 percent to succeed.  To put that into perspective, we’ll need to produce more food in the next 50 years than has been produced in the past 10,000 years combined.

It’s a daunting task and has even been referred to as the challenge of our generation.

Of course if farm output grows, America also succeeds because agricultural productivity is a foundation of the U.S. economy.  So much so that today it employs about 21 million people—six times as many people as the automotive industry—and has been credited by the Federal Reserve for helping lead the country’s economic recession recovery.

With so much at stake, why then are some government officials attacking the very policies that underpin renewable fuel production and the risk management tools growers need to hedge against the unpredictable weather and market conditions affecting growers today and into the future?

Just a few weeks ago, the White House proposed cutting farm policy by $33 billion.  That’s on top of the $15 billion in cuts that farm policy has already shouldered, making it one of the only industries to sacrifice in the name of deficit reduction.

Considering farm policy represents a paltry one-quarter of 1 percent of federal spending, that’s appalling.

In the coming weeks, U.S. farmers and ranchers will find out how big their disproportionate share of budget cuts will be.  And in the coming years, we’ll all find out how much those cuts hindered our ability to provide food, clothes, and fuel for a rapidly growing global market.

As baby number 7 billion readies to enter the earth, our elected leaders face a big decision of what role rural America will play in providing him or her a prosperous future.