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Ag panel: More technology outreach needed as food demand rises

Lab-to-field breakthroughs will play a key role in food production, so agriculture and its regulatory agencies will continue to deal with the sometimes-controversial approaches.

“The food industry in general is going to have to go through a second green revolution, if you will, to feed the number of people that need to be fed,” Idaho Wheat Commission Executive Director Blaine Jacobson said.

Food producers are challenged to meet growing worldwide demand. One challenge is to get the advancements into field, feedlot or dairy soon enough and on a lasting basis given environmental and other regulatory concerns that can arise, panelists at a recent roundtable discussion on ag technology said. The Idaho Business Review co-hosted with Holland and Hart the event Dec. 7 in Boise.

Seeds that have been genetically engineered to resist weed killer and drought, and use fertilizer more efficiently, benefit farmers. But ongoing litigation over weed-killer-resistant sugar beet seeds shows the industry must keep working on solutions that satisfy regulators and the environmental community as well as producers, panelists said. Opponents in the sugar litigation fear the seed traits would spread to other parts of the food supply.

Population gains, a decreasing supply of good farmland and reduced inputs drive the need for greater yield and efficiency, said Bob Zemetra, University of Idaho professor of plant breeding and genetics. Genetic work can improve prospects for this, but getting these seeds into widespread food production takes time. He said it probably will be 10 years before the U.S. sees transgenic wheat, a plant that contains a gene or genes which have been artificially inserted instead through natural acquisition, in the food supply.

Jacobson said adoption of genetically altered wheat probably will happen first in developing countries where need is high and drought tolerance could make more land viable. In the U.S., the industry wants a defined process of approval, he said.

Worldwide wheat production will have to double in 40 years to meet demand as populations increase and standards of living improve, he said.

There is a lot of arable land in the world, but much of it is costly to bring into agricultural production, “so we are where we are in what we can produce on,” said Dick Rush, U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency director for Idaho.

Like other ag industries, the cattle industry must do more with less, Idaho Cattle Association Vice President Wyatt Prescott said. Science’s benefits to the industry include improved breeding programs, better treatments for illness, more efficient use of feed and an increase in desirable characteristics in animals. More public outreach and education is needed about how the U.S. food supply is developed and managed, he said.

Beet growers boosted yields, as prices stayed flat, largely because of technology, said Idaho Sugar Beet Growers Association Executive Director Mark Duffin. Weed control, traditionally done by hand, was a big problem the genetically engineered seeds helped solve in the last couple of years, he said.

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