Opinion | This farmer is wary but optimistic about the global food crisis easing

Placeholder while article actions load

Blake Hurst is a corn, soybean and greenhouse farmer.

TARKIO, Mo. — The U.N. secretary general warns that the war in Ukraine, choking off exports of food and fertilizer, is “threatening to unleash an unprecedented wave of hunger and destitution.” Add the effects of drought in some regions, the pandemic and rising inflation generally, and the world is witnessing rapidly rising food prices and increased hunger.

Yet as dire as all this sounds, there are reasons to be at least cautiously hopeful. Encouraging news arrived last week. With a good mix of sun and rain in Australia, Europe and the United States, excellent end-of-summer harvests might be on the way. The price of wheat — the object of much concern this spring — has dropped more than 25 percent since its peak after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Not that farmers like me aren’t worried. We face more uncertainty than I can remember, and I’ve been doing this since Jimmy Carter was president. Prices are high for what we grow and sell, but the cost for the supplies that go into it have doubled or tripled in the past year. And farmers continue to fret about the ability to find needed supplies — at any price.

Yet the resilience and adaptability of agriculture in the United States and many other countries is an underappreciated factor amid current challenges. Yes, some farmers, faced with high fertilizer prices, are reducing applications of fertilizer, which may lead to lower crop yields. But countless other farmers simply shift plans: Many American farmers are expected to move to soybeans, which require less fertilizer.

A record wheat harvest is forecast for Russia, which has kept its grain exports flowing (they’re not subject to sanctions). Distasteful as it might be, some of the wheat was allegedly stolen from Ukraine. But much of the wheat that Ukraine has managed to keep might yet reach markets, despite Russia’s port blockade, thanks to President Biden’s recent pledge to help move the grain overland.

Until the invasion, Ukraine accounted 14 percent of corn exports on the global market. The Agriculture Department predicts a 41 percent decline in Ukraine’s corn production. The country’s corn exports average about 1 billion bushels annually; a shortfall of half that amount could be made up by the United States alone with a good crop in a few months. U.S. farmers plant more than 90 million acres of corn annually; an increase of just a few bushels per acre above the average could do the job.

Here on my farm in Missouri, the corn crop is off to a great start, and I’m optimistic that we’ll see excellent yields. One reason for that optimism is the general nature of farming in the United States: We have used the latest technology, including genetically modified seed and satellite guided precision planting to plant the crop and reduce the chance of crop failure.

Staggering advances in U.S. agricultural productivity over the past century offer reassurance about how the country can help the world weather current problems. As I planted corn this spring, my memories turned to my grandfather. When he planted our family’s first corn crop in this part of Missouri in 1931, his expected yield would have been almost exactly the same as corn planted in the 1870s and 1880s.

My expected yields will be about seven or eight times what my grandfather would have considered a bumper crop. With that plentitude, food as a portion of family expenses plummeted between 1960 and 2000.

The miracle in agricultural abundance resulted from the application of technology to farming, technology developed from research done by both private and public entities. U.S. lawmakers and voters have supported agriculture in many ways, but most importantly by supporting the discovery and adoption of practices that have increased production.

This is not the case everywhere. Sri Lanka has suffered food riots in recent months after a disastrous government-mandated move to organic farming. Long self-sufficient in rice, Sri Lanka is now importing food to fend off starvation. The European Union has adopted a goal of rapidly increasing organic farming. Perhaps the current food shocks will prompt a reconsideration — and a realization that abundance can be fleeting.

I don’t want to be unrealistic: Millions of people around the world, especially in Africa, will struggle for months, maybe years, from this food crisis. But many prosperous nations, in particular the United States, have the ability to dramatically ramp up food production and food aid. Cooperative weather in much of the world over the past few months has also been a blessing. There are already solid signs of progress since the alarms that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Science and experience are the proper tools to increase production and assure that the world’s food supply is rapidly replenished by the miracle that is modern farming. I’m happy we have access to those technologies. I hope you are, too.

Next Post

10 Novels and Memoirs With Recipes That You Can Cook Along To

Tue Jul 5 , 2022
As a teenager, I loved to hole up in my room with my mother’s back issues of Gourmet Magazine and read through recipes I had no way of making: Florentine boar ragu! Spaghetti with ramps! Vietnamese spring rolls stuffed with bean thread noodles, wood ear mushrooms, grated carrot, and ground […]
10 Novels and Memoirs With Recipes That You Can Cook Along To

You May Like