April 14, 2024

Food production’s historical perspective

PEORIA, Ill. — Agricultural advancements have provided the ability to meet the food demands of an ever-growing population, but challenges lie ahead.

Todd Hultman, DTN grain market analyst, put those challenges into perspective, looking at where farming was and its future.

“My grandparents were farming with a horse in 1927. They didn’t use a lot of fertilizer or ag chemicals. Rain and sunshine were the most inputs they dealt with at that time. There were 2 billion people on the planet in 1927. If you like organic food, GMO-free food or chemical-free food, this was a great time to be alive and enjoy the food,” said Hultman at the Greater Peoria Farm Show.

Unfortunately, not everyone had an adequate amount of food available a century ago.

“There weren’t any statistics on how many people were undernourished in the world, but I can tell you that in 1975 the United Nations said 25% of the planet was undernourished. So, I can only imagine how tough it must have been in 1927 worldwide. It took a lot of land to support a family farming with those methods,” Hultman said.

Game Changer

Famines have been common occurrences throughout world history.

“Anytime you have an area with maybe two drought years in a row, you were having some serious famine issues and that was not uncommon,” Hultman said.

“In fact, the worst famine that ever happened was roughly 60 years ago. That was when China hit a three-year period where they had 30 million people starve to death and probably lost another 30 million people due to failed childbirth during that time.”

“A lot of the world doesn’t realize how important the work is that you do.”

—  Todd Hultman, grain market analyst, DTN

The deadly famine eventually resulted in a major change in China’s agriculture policies.

“Chairman Mao had made a serious mistake. He took a lot of the peasants off the land and stuck them into factories and industries and then China had a three-year drought. It really cost them dearly,” Hultman said.

“Right after that this supposedly communist nation made a pretty dramatic change. Mao died in 1976. A couple of years later, Deng Xiaoping took over and he made a lot of what I would call capitalistic-like market reforms in China. He let them have their own ground, he let them farm, their food production went up and he did a lot of other things to open up and make them a more market friendly economy.

“China went from a very poor nation in 1978 to now a nation with the world’s second largest GDP. They’ve seen a significant shift in what they’ve done, and they’ve introduced a lot of modern farming methods along the way that allowed them to do this.”


Fast-forward to 2023, the world’s population is now at 8 billion people.

“According to the United Nations, roughly 10% of the planet is undernourished. Basically our food production has gone from a place where it was not so great with 2 billion people. Now we’re feeding adequately 90% at least of 8 billion people,” Hultman said.

The transition from the horsepower provided by four legs to machinery was the first steppingstone.

“My grandfather got his first tractor in about 1939. That picked up a lot after World War II. We’ve seen much improvement in the infrastructure, roads and bridges. There’s a lot more irrigation today. A lot of farms today have their own storage,” Hultman said.

“The big change in food production since 1927 is fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides. That’s been a huge game changer in the amount of food we’ve been able to produce from one acre of ground.

“Sometimes we think of fertilizer as just being able to give us a little boost in yield, but consider that in many parts of the world there’s a lot of land that you could not farm without fertilizer.

“You could not grow 5 billion bushels of soybeans in Brazil without heavy amounts of fertilizer. They use about three times more per acre than we do. You could not grow heavy amounts of wheat and rice in India and China without heavy amounts of fertilizer. It’s been a big deal.”

Canadian scientist Vaclav Smil once said that without invention of synthetic ammonia, agriculture could only support about 4 billion people on the planet.

“Here we are at 8 billion adequately fed, but without fertilizer and these helps we could maybe feed 4 billion,” Hultman said.

Push For Green

“Now we have this push to go green. A lot this depends on petroleum — oil and gas — to fuel this. By today’s methods you cannot produce synthetic ammonia without large amounts of natural gas,” Hultman said.

“We’re all going to have to learn new ways, new fuels, new ways of farming, new methods, but we’ve got to keep that food production up or this civilization as we know it just does not sustain itself. That, to me, is the more important definition of sustainable agriculture, and can we continue to provide this type of standard of living.

“I don’t know if hydrogen is going to be the answer. It’s not ready yet. Solar and wind might contribute a little, but they’re not up to the task of carrying this much weight of food production.

“I don’t know what the answers are going to be. I don’t know if it will be the nitrogen-fixing microbes, maybe it will be a lot of things, but the task is on all of us to keep learning, to keep learning better ways and to find answers. That world population growth is not going to end any time soon.”

The world population continues to increase. The United Nations projects a population of 10.4 billion by 2100.

“Obviously there’s going to be further and further strain, so it’s on all of us. Here in the U.S., farmers and ranchers are 1% of the population. You’re the ones who keep feeding all of us. We’re the ones counting on you,” Hultman said. “A lot of the world doesn’t realize how important the work is that you do.”

Tom Doran

Tom C. Doran

Field Editor