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World population growth demands more U.S. agricultural research

Portrait of farmer Bounthit Inthavong  in her rice field in Tao Than village, Vientiane Lao PDR.
A ricer farmer in Tao Than village, Laos, an area hard hit by climate change. Photo: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

By 2050, the world’s population will balloon from roughly 7.6 billion people to nearly 10 billion, which poses enormous challenges to securing an abundant and safe food supply.

Why it matters: Without effective research and development to increase crop yields, combat climate change's impact on agricultural output and increase global access to more nutritional diets, the world will experience more famines leading to forced migrations, political instability and human suffering.

Because farming techniques have improved and the agricultural industry has expanded to use nearly all the arable land in the world, the challenge of increasing yields must first be overcome in laboratories. Specifically, agricultural research must focus on ways to combat crop and animal disease, cope with increased climate variability (e.g., rainfall, droughts and heat), improve food nutritional quality and increase crop yields and resilience.

Reality check: For the first time, China now spends more on public agricultural research than the U.S., with Brazil close behind. If the U.S. fails to keep pace with these countries' funding programs, the losers will be farmers coping with climate change, smallholder farmers in the U.S. and developing world, and those in need of cures and treatments for animal, plant and human disease.

In addition to the moral and scientific arguments for the U.S. to increase its research funding, there's an equally strong one for national security: Regions that that have too little food or water, face famine or lack soil-rich nutrients are more likely to start or fall victim to conflicts, which can then easily spread.

The big picture: For years, the U.S. has led in agricultural research, development and technology — especially in the revolutionary innovation of genetic engineering. The world's food security, as well as the United States' national-security interests, are at risk if the U.S. falls behind on agricultural research.

Dan Glickman is the former Secretary of Agriculture, Congressman from Kansas and Founding Chair of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research. 

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