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A new strategy to feed the world

By Dennis T. Avery
web posted December 19, 2011

Can we successfully grow more plants per acre as a future strategy for increasing our crop yields and food production? Sixty thousand corn plants per acre -- twice Iowa's current average -- could be one route to higher productivity. The world will need twice as much food in 2050, and we'll need to triple the crop yields on the best land. Doubling would be a very good start. 

Otherwise, we'll see one of two bad things: Either lots of people will starve, or we'll plow down all the wildlife for low-yield crops. The stakes are high. But the basic ways to raise yields over the past half-century -- cross-breeding plants, irrigation, pesticides, and lots of nitrogen fertilizer -- are already widely used. Another three-fold yield increase will be tough.

The Stine Seed Company of Adel, Iowa, says it's ready to lead the charge. This year, it had a test plot with 75,000 plants per acre. It was supposed to be 60,000, but the planter malfunctioned. "It can be done," says the company's Myron Stine as he checks an ear from the densely populated field. The ear looks normal, with kernels filled almost to the tip. An ear to be proud of. As a start, however, seed companies are urging their growers to ramp up to 40,000 plants per acre en route to the bigger goal.

Growing more plants per acre seems an obvious potential strategy, but it won't be easy. The fields will need consistent rains, irrigation, or supplemental irrigation in well-watered regions. We may need drought-tolerant seeds, which we don't yet have. We'll need lots of nitrogen fertilizer, and careful management to prevent the extra nitrogen from leaching into streams.  Some actual re-design of the corn plant leaves, to maximize the amount of heat the plants intercept from the sun, could be on the menu to success. We'll need good erosion control, such as no-till, to prevent the soil from slipping away during storms.

Stine is unusual -- an independent seed company that can take the best of what it sees from the whole range of high-science seed companies. Stine's premier seed now is labeled 9806. It's "triple stacked" with Stine germplasm, plus Monsanto's herbicide tolerance trait, and a bred-in Bt pesticide. Other technology is licensed from Syngenta and Dow Agrosciences.

Stine also licenses LibertyLink from Bayer Crop Sciences -- a direct competitor for Monsanto's Roundup (glyphosate) herbicide. One factor in Iowa's continuing yield gains has been the use of genetically engineered herbicide and pesticide bred into the plants; it's a more direct delivery system than spraying. However, huge amounts of Roundup herbicide have been used in Monsanto's Roundup-Ready corn and soybean seeds in recent decades. Some weeds are beginning to show signs of resistance to Roundup. Fortunately, LibertyLink is already available, so farmers will be able to rotate their weed control systems.

Farmers used to get their technology from public sources such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the land-grant university experiment stations. After the 1960s Green Revolution, however, the public began to fear "overpopulation" more than they feared hunger for poor people. Now we know that human birth rates are tied to death rates. As high-yield crops and modern medicine have cut death rates, birth rates are also plummeted in both rich and emerging countries.

More food won't produce more human numbers in the years ahead, just better-fed people. But the public farm research institutions have been focused lately on growing crops without pesticides rather than trying for higher yields. The private sector has expanded to fill the gap, along with such prominent donors to high-yield farming research funders as Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett. Buffett's son, Howard, has his own major foundation, also dedicated to high yield farming research.

The farmers are facing their biggest challenge in history. They'll need help -- and public approval -- to raise their yields high enough to meet that test. ESR

Dennis T. Avery, a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., is an environmental economist. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. He is co-author, with S. Fred Singer of Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Years. Readers may write to him at PO Box 202 Churchville, VA 2442; email to cgfi@hughes.net or visit us at www.cgfi.org.


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