With the world expected to need twice as much food to keep 10 billion people from going hungry by 2050, we’re going to have to dramatically increase our yields.
Dennis Avery, an ag economist with the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., believes current yields will have to triple to meet the growing demand for food.
Avery believes a key to meeting these needs will be pumping up corn populations to as much as 60,000 corn plants per acre.
Two Bad Things
Avery says there are only two choices if crop yields around the world can’t be pushed to much higher levels:
Lots of people will starve.
We’ll have to plow down much of the land in the world that is best suited for wildlife simply to produce low-yielding crops.
“Growing more plants per acre seems to be an obvious strategy, but it won’t be easy,” says Avery. “Fields will need consistent rains, irrigation or supplemental irrigation in well-watered regions. We may need drought-tolerant seeds, along with lots of fertilizer and careful management to keep nitrogen from leaching into streams.”
He believes we may see a redesign of corn leaves to maximize the amount of heat that can be intercepted from the sun. And he thinks we’re going to need many more acres of no-till to keep the soil from slipping away during storms, even though we currently have 288 million acres of no-till worldwide.
When it comes to no-tilling much higher plant populations, Avery cites the example of Stine Seed Co. in Adel, Iowa. Last spring, one of their plots ended up with 75,000 corn plants per acre after a planter malfunction.
They found the resulting ears from the 75,000 plants per acre looked normal and the kernels were filled almost to the tip. The result has convinced the Stine family that moving to much higher populations offers a great deal of promise. Yet this 75,000 population is almost 90% higher than the 40,000 populations being promoted today by many seed firms.
Moving To 12-Inch Rows?
The Stine family is also looking at planting corn in 12-inch rows while leaving an anticipated 12 inches between plants. Marion Calmer of Calmer Corn Heads in Alpha, Ill., will build a 12-row corn header this winter for the Stines.
“Someday, we’ll be growing corn in 12-inch rows — there’s no question about it,” Calmer says. “Harry Stine is excited about the benefits and I think he’ll likely be the first to develop the genetics for growing corn in a 12-by-12-inch pattern. It will take someone like him with the vision to do this.”
No-Till More Important
Other countries are also looking for new ways to expand food production. For example, government officials in India are looking at the success Argentina has had over the past 20 years in becoming a worldwide force in crop production.
The South American country has expanded crop production by 275% after dramatically expanding their no-till acres.
This has allowed them to expand double-cropping, conserve water, boost soil organic matter, trim fertilizer needs and decrease soil erosion, according to a Rabobank report.
As a result, Argentina’s soybean producers have trimmed costs by 50% while bringing more marginal land into efficient production and boosting soybean, corn and wheat yields. No-till has really paid off in Argentina and officials in India think adopting a similar program could lead to the country’s second green revolution.
India’s first green revolution was all about developing higher yielding varieties and improving farm mechanization. However, government officials now see the value of combining genetically modified seeds with new cropping opportunities that could come into play from making a big push to expand the country’s no-till acres.
If we’re going to feed an exploding population, big gains have to be made in producing higher yields all around the world. It’s not going to be easy, and will require dramatic changes in the way we grow crops.
But one thing is for sure — further adoption of no-till is going to be essential to feed the world’s expanding population.