Professor Discusses Sustainable Food Production

Cornellians gathered to hear Prof. Stephen Long, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, discuss food security, the use of bioenergy without conflict with agriculture and social barriers to crop yield improvement...

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By Stephanie Yan via Cornell Daily Sun, 4/23/2015

Cornellians gathered to hear Prof. Stephen Long, crop science and plant biology, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, discuss food security, the use of bioenergy without conflict with agriculture and social barriers to crop yield improvement at a lecture Thursday.

Long began by affirming the need for greater crop productivity in the future. He said this is necessary because while the United Nations food and agricultural report predicted “that we [will] need 70 percent more primary foodstuffs by 2050 than we have today,” crop yields will not improve proportionally based on current trends.

Jennie Li / Sun Staff Photographer

“Over the last decade, the average yield of wheat per hectare of land has not improved at all,” Long said. “We’re rather getting into a stage where we’re seeing a flattening out of yield improvement year by year. Part of this may be that we’re just reaching biological limits on some aspects of crop improvement.”

Long emphasized that the United States is pivotal to production of primary foodstuff; thus, any change in food output would have a lasting impact on worldwide food production.

“Although we only have a tenth of the world area devoted to maize, in fact we produce over a third of the world’s maize, we produce about a third of the world’s soy and a significant part of the world’s wheat as well,” Long said. “And the United States remains the biggest exporter of these primary foodstuffs. So what happens in the United States is actually very important for costs of many of these foods globally.”

He explained that while the rise and fall of the price of basic foodstuffs is not a pressing matter for Americans, it greatly affects others around the world.

“We don’t really feel that impact very much because these primary foodstuffs are a really small part of our household budgets,” Long said. “But in some parts of the world, 60 to 70 percent of household budget goes to basic foodstuffs. So if they double in price, that’s a catastrophe for those areas,” Long said.

Long then spoke about the use of biofuels as possible sources of sustainable energy in the future, citing Brazil’s use of sugarcane to produce fuel and sell more ethanol than gasoline in 2012 as a model other countries should aspire to.

“They’ve managed to do this by using abandoned sugarcane land and moving on to fairly low-grade pasture,” Long said. “So it really isn’t competing with their food production in any significant way.”

Long said he wanted attendees to develop a better understanding of how innovation will “play a major part in feeding the world and fueling the world from plants by 2050.”

“I hope they get the vision that these things are possible — that we can increase food production without using more land, without destroying more of the environment, that we do have a way forward and we should be using that,” Long said. “[I also want them to] get the view that the United States could develop renewable sources of liquid fuels without impacting food production.”

Long ended the talk by stressing the importance of science communication in making these advances in crop production.

“Today we have the availability of communication and discommunication, which makes the communication of science critical,” he said. “From a scientific perspective, we could have it all by 2050. Whether policy and society will allow us … we don’t know.”

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