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Setting the Table for a Hotter, Flatter, More Crowded Earth

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy delivers the keynote address at the 2013 Texas A&M AgriLife Conference

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA), brought up some challenging questions in his keynote speech at the 2013 AgriLife Conference, Jan. 7-9, 2013. How will we feed, shelter and clothe 9 billion people in 2050? Better still… how will we do it with minimal ecological footprint?

As we’re setting the table for our future, what issues do we need to be thinking about as we carry out our research, teaching, extension and service?

To help guide the conversation, here’s a recap of the key points that Dr. Ramaswamy posed.

Biotic Constraints
Of more than 50,000 edible plants in the world, we’re only using about 15-50 of them. Can we be weaned from these small few? Of the ones we’re using, can we improve the yield, disease resistance, nitrogen fixation, genomic selection or heat tolerance?

Abiotic Constraints
With increased stress on land and water, our aquifers are depleting, our soil is depleting, our aerosols are increasing and our nitrogen use is two to four times more than we need. How can we improve?

Food Waste and Food Loss
In some countries, half the food is lost before it reaches the table. In America, half the food is wasted after it’s been on the table. It’s estimated that within 40 years, we need to double our food production to feed the population. Or could it be that we could cut loss and waste in half?

Farming Systems
As the population grows, how do we feed more families using less land and less water? Can we improve our technology? Encourage cooperatives to help small farmers gain access to land and loans? What about diversifying our land use – what about vertical farming, hydroponics, aquaponics?

Policies, Regulation and Marketing
It’s our job to provide our governing bodies with top-notch scientific information. We must ask ourselves what policies benefit society – trade, education, jobs, etc.

The best solutions and technology in the world are worthless without acceptance and application. And for that, the world needs info. The mission of Texas A&M AgriLife, therefore, is to provide the data that will inform the decisions of our lawmakers, leaders and communities. They need our research, extension, teaching and service.

What are your thoughts on the major issues facing our society and what strengths or weaknesses do you think AgriLife has in answering those tough questions? I encourage you to share your thoughts by posting a comment below.

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