Agriculture faces several challenges to keep up with feeding the growing population

October 29, 2012
  • Jeff Semler
Jeff Semler

What are the biggest challenges to agriculture today? I get asked that question a lot and I find that while the orders of the answer change, the primary answers don’t.

When I say the order, I mean the order of importance.

For instance, a few years ago when the building boom was in full swing, urban sprawl would have been much higher on the list in the Mid-Atlantic region than it is today. That is not to say the urban sprawl is still not a concern. At last glance, they aren’t making any more land, and for some reason, prime farm land is also prime development land.

As I have said before, a house, apartment building or shopping center is the last crop a piece of land will ever grow.

There have been acres and acres of great farmland swallowed up in the four-state area just in my lifetime. Do not get me wrong, I understand why people want to live here and only some of us were fortunate enough to be born here.

It is not only the direct loss of land that is a concern, but is the fact that agriculture is pushed on to marginal land. This can drive up production costs, reduce productivity and have a negative environmental impact or some combination of the three.

Another challenge for agriculture is the world population is more than seven billion and is headed to nine billion by 2050. How are we going to feed these additional mouths?

This will be especially challenging as restraints are put on production practices because of political or environmental reasons. When I say constraints, I do not mean it to be negative. Sometimes caution is a good idea, but sometimes it can be silly or criminal. And when I say criminal, I mean when rulers are willing to allow their people to starve because of their own greed and need for power.

The last two challenges I will address today are intertwined a bit. We all have heard that farmers are getting older and that the on-farm population is shrinking. This brings me to our challenge of not enough young people entering the agricultural field.

While yes, I am concerned that young people are not returning to the farm.

I am equally concerned that young people are not going into the areas of agricultural science. Yes, our veterinary schools are full, but many are not headed into food animal agriculture, but into pet medicine.

Folks, pets do not feed the world. Before you hit send on the email, I am a pet lover and believe in quality medical care for my animals.

However, that quality care also needs to extend into the barnyard and research centers.

We need young people to fill the agriculture schools and start solving real problems. Feeding the world is more important than selling derivatives.

Yet the major threat I see to agriculture is illiteracy.

No I do not mean people cannot read — what I mean is people are illiterate when it comes to agriculture and its related issues.
The average American is three to four generations removed from the farm and has no idea what it takes to make a living farming.

Yet these same people want to dictate farming practices through either regulation or law. That would be like me walking into Volvo/Mack Trucks and telling them how they should manufacture their engines. I might think they should design and build an engine that would be zero emissions or that they should be able to manufacture these engines using half of the inputs used a decade ago.

While these might be laudable goals and might even be goals Volvo itself has set, it is not my place to attempt to dictate Volvo/Mack manufacturing practices.

So my suggestion is get to know a farmer. You will probably develop a better appreciation for agriculture and you might go from uninformed to championing agriculture.

Or perhaps, you might choose a career in the agricultural sciences.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by email at

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