Advances in Agricultural Research

May 22, 1981

Report Outline
Potential of U.S. Agriculture
Advances in Plant Breeding
Future of Research Effort
Special Focus

Potential of U.S. Agriculture

Disturbing Trends in Food Production

The United States is the No. 1 agricultural nation in the world. America's farms produce more than enough food to feed this nation's population, and U.S. agriculture also dominates the international food market. But as the world's population soars, and as the amount of arable land decreases and the rate of crop production levels off, will this country be able to continue feeding the world? A close look at the situation reveals some disturbing trends.

First, both in the United States and around the world, population pressures and environmental factors are causing millions of acres of farm land to be lost each year. The United States alone lost some 16 million acres of farm land to urban development and soil erosion from 1975–80, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) calculations. Second, the world's population, which stands today at some 4.5 billion, will be at least 6 billion by the year 2000, according to demographic projections. Third, U.S. agriculture, though still producing record amounts of crops, since the mid-1970s has experienced lowered gains in productivity. “Yields are increasing at decreasing rates,” said Norman Berg, director of USDA's soil conservation service. “Pure technology may have reached the point of diminishing returns.”

Furthermore, the high-yielding varieties of wheat, corn and rice developed by U.S. agricultural scientists since the 1920s were chosen especially for their adaptability to fertilizers, pesticides and highly mechanized farming methods. This method of cultivation uses large amounts of energy, and the cost of fuel for agricultural machinery and of petrochemical feed stocks for the production of fertilizer has shot out of sight since the mid-1970s. In addition to the monetary factor, heavy dependence on petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers has had another unwanted consequence: soil erosion. According to the Department of Agriculture, more than 140 million acres of U.S. cropland are threatened by high erosion rates. Widespread use of fertilizers and pesticides “raise[s] crop yields, but result[s] in pollution problems when these materials or their breakdown products are washed or blown from the fields,” concluded a report published in 1980 by the Council on Environmental Quality.

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