Technological advances will continue to drive crop advances as global agriculture prepares to feed and clothe another 2-3 billion people by 2050 but on less land worldwide linked to water scarcity.

“Technology will help us feed the world – jumping from 7 billion to 10 billion people on 80 percent of the land farmed today,” said Mike McCarty, president and chief executive officer of Helena Chemical Company (HCC), Collierville, Tenn.

McCarty believes this will be the biggest challenge and opportunity which agriculture worldwide has ever faced.

McCarty shared his vision as the keynote speaker during the 2012 Southwest Agricultural Summit held in Yuma, Ariz. About 1,100 people attended the sixth annual event.

The HCC chief executive joined the company in 1980 as a salesman. The nearly $4 billion company distributes crop production inputs plus protection products and services for agriculture and other industries.

Looking first at the major crops grown in the U.S. including grains, McCarty said, “Agriculture will have to be more efficient than ever. Technology will drive the future of our business.”

McCarty’s crystal ball envisions that two primary businesses — agriculture and energy — will excel globally more than others. He predicts many opportunities for production agriculture and agri-business.

“I see a very, very promising future,” McCarty said.

McCarty’s optimism is partly based on mushrooming world population projections. The fastest growing areas include China, India, and Africa. Today, China has a 1.3 billion population; a fourfold increase over the U.S.

More people will mean more vehicles which will further fuel the demand for ethanol. About 35 percent of the U.S. grain crop today is converted to ethanol fuel.

“Ethanol continues as a sizable market of the grain crop.”

Another reason for McCarty’s positive agricultural forecast is the desire worldwide for a healthier diet including more fruits and vegetables.

In China, more residents are climbing the economic ladder into the middle class. This means more available income and the ability to consume more protein from meat, tree nuts, and other sources.

A healthier food supply, McCarthy points out, can reduce physical ailments including Type 2 diabetes which is tied to obesity.

“We need a change in nutrition,” McCarty said. “Agriculture can help lead this. This will be a tremendous opportunity for vegetable growers in the U.S.”

This message hit home for the large number of vegetable industry members attending the summit. Yuma County area and neighboring Imperial County, Calif., produce about 95 percent of the nation’s winter vegetable supply for salads.

Water scarcity

In an example of technology breakthroughs underway in agriculture, McCarty discussed a recent tour he took of a Syngenta operation where the company’s future lines of vegetable seeds were highlighted. The new products signaled how Syngenta is improving the taste and smell of vegetables.

“I took a bite of a traditional pepper; it looked and tasted like a normal pepper,” McCarty said. “The other pepper tasted almost like a snack. It was like eating candy; almost addictive. This technology will be available in the future. That’s a plus,” McCarty said.

The Helena leader also addressed crop yields which have more than doubled over the last 30-40 years. McCarty warned that crop yield advances will slow slightly in the near future in developed countries, but will increase faster in less-developed countries.

“This is where new technology and innovation will really come into play.”

A 20 percent reduction in farmed acreage worldwide is tied to water scarcity across the globe.

“Water will be a limiting factor (globally),” McCarty said. “Over the last century in the world, global water use has increased at twice of the rate of the population.”

In the U.S., Texas’ record drought last year parched soil, left crops to sizzle and die in fields, and forced ranchers to cull cow herds at an all-time high.

California’s lack of rain and snowfall this past winter has producers again on edge. Arizona’s prolonged drought, stretching more than a dozen consecutive years, is forcing producers to fallow fertile land in the state’s central section; land traditionally planted in cotton and other crop staples.

About 200 high school and college students and teachers attended the summit. McCarty painted a positive forecast for jobs in the agricultural field including food production, equipment, seed, fertilizer, agrichemical, and other sectors.

McCarty says U.S. agriculture is fiscally strong with U.S. gross farm income topping $400 billion last year; an all-time record high. Production expenses were in the $320 billion range with net farm income nearing $100 million. Farm input expenses penciled out near $56 billion.

McCarty says the global economy impacts U.S. agriculture more than the U.S. economy alone.

“I’m concerned about the global economy and what is going on in Europe right now,” McCarty said. “If there is a recession-proof industry then agriculture comes pretty close when compared to other industries.”

Agriculture’s future hinges on those willing to take risks and initiate change, McCarty says. Risk takers have made U.S. agriculture stronger.

“Our competition (in agriculture) is now global. We need to be aware of what our competition is doing so we can take the steps to move forward.”

Continued change was also echoed during the summit by Shane Burgess, dean of the University of Arizona’s (UA) College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Burgess took the reins as the CALS dean last August.

He says never has the world faced feeding 7 billion to 10 billion people and been so concerned about food safety, the food chain, and the food system security.

Change is inherent for Arizona and the UA as they move forward from the recession with reduced budgets and revised plans.

Burgess said, “One of the things that it means to be a land grant university and a college of agriculture is we need to listen to those who are making the world turn. What do we need to do now, tomorrow, and over the next 10 years?”

“We need to be consistent, pragmatic, and continually improving and being on the cutting edge of innovation.” 

cblake@farmpress.com