Technology pushes Iowa food production to new heights

Hunger topic of summit Tuesday in Des Moines

Tom Brown, of rural Muscatine County, unloads his corn from his Case IH combine Sept. 14. (Mark Benischek/The Gazette)
Tom Brown, of rural Muscatine County, unloads his corn from his Case IH combine Sept. 14. (Mark Benischek/The Gazette)

The eyes of a hungry world will again be on Iowa next week during a summit in Des Moines  as experts in food production, nutrition and global challenges gather to share ideas and compare notes on ways to feed a world population projected to hit 10 billion in this century.

Although slowed by hot and dry growing conditions this year, the long-term trend for U.S. crop and livestock production continues to grow and experts believe the current “gene revolution” in agriculture will fuel record yields domestically and spread new technology and practices to parts of the world that have barely scratched the surface of their food-growing potential.

“We think there is a lot of head room still to go in terms of increasing yields in the major row crops,” said David Fischhoff, Monsanto vice president for technology strategy and development. “It will depend on being able to apply all of the technologies that we have available.”

Continued advancements in seed and plant genetics; soil, water and nutrient management; weed, disease and pest control; and precision equipment from planting to harvest are driving incremental increases in corn yields that have experts projecting an acre of fertile Iowa land could be producing 300 bushels of grain by 2030.

That would nearly double the top statewide corn average that Iowa farmers have been able to achieve. It is expected soybean production would mirror that progress but at levels about a third of the per-acre output of corn plants.

Test plots in corn-growing competitions have produced yields into the 400-bushel-per acre range, and David Miller, director of research and commodity services for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, said small-scale experiments with highly manicured, hand-planted and hand-tended, garden-like growing conditions have pushed corn yields to 500 bushels an acre. While less practical for large-scale production, such efforts demonstrate there is still growth potential in pushing the outer limits of the earth’s food-producing capabilities.

“Theorists tell us there will be an upper limit on what you can produce from an acre of ground,” said Bill Beavis, professor and Sprague Chair in the agronomy department and interim director of Iowa State University’s Plant Sciences Institute.

However, he said, research and experimentation in plant science can produce interactions with sometimes unexpected or unintended results that can have game-changing affects similar to the way the development of the computer chip unlocked a plethora of technological advancements.

The advances in farming practices quadrupled per-yield production for the generations of farmers who worked Iowa’s soil in the last century, and Brent Wilson, manager of agronomical and technical services for DuPont Pioneer in Johnston, said “if anything we’re probably pushing the accelerator faster” now given the amount of financial resources, people and energy being deployed into agriculture to improve and increase productivity.

“If you think about our fathers’ or our grandfathers’ lifetimes, could they have imagined a tractor that steered itself through the field when they were sitting behind two horses going up and down a 10-acre field — probably not,” he said. “So, as we dream about what the future looks like, why wouldn’t we expect it to be as dramatic? I don’t see anything that would prevent us from having those kinds of far-reaching effects in tremendous improvements in productivity.”

At the farm level, Miller said corn producers are devoting more attention to managing the nearly three dozen factors that can affect yields, things like planting earlier in the spring, experimenting with row widths, monitoring planting depths and minimizing stress points, although water and temperature continue to be the biggest variables as was painfully evident in the just-completed growing cycle.

“As we push to managing more and more of the factors of production, we will be able to achieve more toward the upper end of yield potential,” he said.

There have been similar advancements on the animal agriculture front, Miller said, noting that milk production has doubled over the years with records being set while Iowa has fewer and fewer cows. Likewise, livestock production advances have farmers raising beef steers and market hogs with more meat and less fat and sows are farrowing more litters with more pigs per litter than 20 years ago.

Not everyone, however, is a fan of the march to genetic engineering of crops or the corporate-style takeover of U.S. agriculture, much less creating a push to export the practices to other parts of the world.

Frank Cordaro, an activist in the Des Moines Catholic Worker house and a member of the Occupy the World Food Prize Working Committee, said corporate farming practices have fouled Iowa waters with chemicals and eroded Iowa topsoil with intense fence row to fence row production and now threaten the biosphere by unleashing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that pose the same environmental threats that the advent of nuclear weapons did in the mid-20th century.

Opponents of modifying plant genetics say “the science is scary and not properly vetted” and the yield production figures are “cooked” because they mask the negative factors that carry an unseen cost, Cordaro said.

“They brag about feeding the poor as if they’re the only last hope the hungry world needs,” he said. “Truth is they’re destroying the planet and they’re creating a wealth disparity in the world that would rival the Romans. We need to take back our democracy from the corporate elites in our world food system.”

To that end, Cordaro said members of his Occupy group plan to stage nonviolent protests at next weeks’ World Food Prize events to call attention to the corporate element of the organization and to push for more decentralized approaches to food policies that spurn genetically modified organisms in seeds and pesticides in favor of organic, small, traditional, sustainable farming methods.

Miller, who farms 650 acres in Lucas and Clarke counties, said opposition to GMOs shows a lack of recognition for what the technology has done and points up the reality that geo-political disagreements and government interference are probably the biggest impediments to improving food productions on a worldwide scale.

“The people who have pushed to keep biotechnology out of Africa have done more to aid starvation on that continent than probably anybody else,” he said. “Subsistence farming is not good ecologically, it’s not good economically, and it’s not good socially. It’s not in society’s interest to have subsistence-style farming. It’s a waste of resources and actually it’s the most destructive kind of thing that happens to natural resources.”

Miller pointed to Zimbabwe in southern Africa, which once produced enough food to feed the entire continent but now faces political instability that scares off capital investment and thwarts agricultural production. It went from being the breadbasket of Africa to being “a basket case,” he said. Likewise, India probably could double its food production with the adoption of new technologies, he added.

Iowa Hunger Summit

WHEN: 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Tuesday, Downtown Marriott, Des Moines

KEYNOTE SPEAKER: AARP Foundation President Jo Ann Jenkins to discuss challenges of hunger among older citizens


SPONSOR: World Food Prize Foundation

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