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World-Herald editorial: Agriculture’s challenges

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A little over a year ago, a high-level scientific advisory council to the White House issued a 55-page report that outlined key challenges facing U.S. agriculture.

How many of those challenges have been at the forefront of Congress’s extended debate over the farm bill?

Lamentably, the answer is none.

That was a central point made by an expert panel Tuesday night during presentations and discussions at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s East Campus, looking at the long-term hurdles U.S. agriculture needs to address.

The challenges include boosting agricultural yields and productivity; guarding against plant and animal diseases and other pathogens; efficient water use; bioenergy; improving the ability of crops to deal with climatic stresses; and reducing the ag sector’s environmental footprint.

“We hear very little about the future of agriculture, about the ability to feed the world in a sustainable way, very little about these huge challenges,” former U.S. agriculture secretary Dan Glickman told the audience at UNL’s East Student Union, referring to the congressional debate.

But if our country marshals its resources and makes wise investments in agriculture, he said, “We are uniquely positioned to lead a global call for action in the world.”

Production agriculture contributes $121 billion to the U.S. economy, and food manufacturing provides an additional $165 billion, said Catherine Woteki, the U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for research, education and economics.

Woteki, Glickman and another panelist, Philip Pardey, professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Applied Economics, highlighted specific challenges. Here are three:

>> By 2050, the world’s population is expected to add 2 billion more people, for a total of some 9 billion, with millions living in “food-insecure” situations. But the U.S. agricultural sector will not come close to addressing that increased need — and in fact may find its export capability noticeably limited by 2050 — unless major improvements are achieved in crop yields and productivity in coming decades.

>> Research into some major ag challenges is underfunded. A new “innovation ecosystem for agricultural research” is needed. China, in contrast, has maintained a long-term commitment to boosting its agricultural research and, indeed, now leads the world in such funding.

>> Disease threats can erupt in short order in the ag sector. In 1999, Pardey said, a variety of stem rust appeared. More than 80 percent of the world’s wheat crop is considered susceptible to this rust. Yet at the time of the disease’s discovery, only five American scientists had the breadth of knowledge to deal in depth with the problem. It’s just one example why the United States needs to strengthen its ability to respond to such threats.

It was a positive reflection on the University of Nebraska that so many of the long-term challenges highlighted by the discussion are topics already receiving major attention from NU faculty and staff. Examples include water-use efficiency and extensive research into drought-resistant crops.

Through this event and other presentations in its ongoing Heuermann lecture series, NU is contributing in important ways to highlighting key issues that U.S. agriculture must address if it’s to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

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