Op-Ed: Jon Scholl, American Farmland Trust

11:54AM May 17, 2012
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Written By Jon Scholl, President, American Farmland Trust

American Agriculture finds itself poised to supply a growing world demand for food, fiber and fuel. But will our farmers and ranchers have enough sustainable, healthy farm and ranch land to meet the challenge?
There is no question about the level of future demand. Indeed, the most recent USDA World Agriculture Supply and Demand Estimate indicates that this year’s corn crop will be planted on more than 96 million acres, the largest acreage since 1937. Overall, program crop acreage will increase a projected 8.6 million acres this year over last.   China alone is expected to demand a 60 percent increase in imports. Global demand for all grains is projected to be up more than 5.6 percent this year over last year.
Moreover, this is not a short-term bubble.  By 2050, the world will hold 2.3 billion more people.  Incomes in the developing world will rise, leading to more demand for meat and dairy products, which means a long-term trend toward increasing consumption of grain for feed. Global consumers will require 200 million more tons of meat and more than a billion tons of additional grain.  Overall, food production will have to increase by 70 percent.  Add to that the expanding demand for biofuels, which will more than double in the coming two decades, according to projections from the US Department of Energy. 
To meet this growing demand, it is clear we must continue to invest in the long-term health of our productive resources. Yet, to put conservation in context, the U.S. lost 23 million acres of farmland -- an area the size of Indiana -- to development between 1982 and 2007. Making matters worse, it is often the best and most productive land that is developed. 
Current demand is pressuring our natural resources.   According to USDA, 62 percent of the cropped acres in the Upper Mississippi River Basin require additional conservation treatment, and 15 percent are "critically under-treated."  In the Chesapeake Bay Region, 80 percent of the cropped acres need treatment and 19 percent are critically under-treated.  Furthermore, EPA assessments show that agriculture is the largest source of nutrient loading in the country’s impaired rivers and lakes, and a major source of air pollutants such as ammonia, nitrous oxide and methane.  Agriculture is also the source of seven percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. 
These statistics are not just abstract figures; they are a threat to the strength and resilience of American agriculture.  Farm and ranch production – and global food security -- depends on natural resources like healthy soil and abundant, clean water. 
Agricultural conservation efforts to date have achieved an incredible amount.  American farmers and ranchers reduced soil erosion by 40 percent between 1982 and 1997 as a result of conservation improvements.  They retired more than 30 million of their most sensitive acres, turning them over to native plantings that provide wildlife habitat and sequester carbon.  And they reduced losses of nitrogen and phosphorous by a fifth to a half in the Upper Mississippi River Basin and the Chesapeake Bay Region.
The astonishing growth in demand clearly represents an opportunity for American agriculture as an industry. However, if we are going to maintain a thriving agriculture sector, continue to protect our natural resources, and provide for the global food security that is so central to our own national security, we must continue a strong commitment to conservation.  It is through strong and effective conservation practices that the US farmer and rancher can be part of the solution to global food security and usher in a new golden age for American agriculture.
Jon Scholl became the President of American Farmland Trust in July 2008, after serving as Counselor to the Administrator for Agricultural Policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) since 2004. Prior to that, Scholl served the Illinois Farm Bureau for 25 years. He is a partner in a family farm in McLean County, Illinois.