Urban sprawl a threat to productivity

If farmers are going to feed the nine billion people expected to inhabit the earth by 2050, they’re going to have to double their current output. And they might have to do so with less land and increasing production challenges.

If farmers are going to feed the nine billion people expected to inhabit the earth by 2050, they’re going to have to double their current output. And they might have to do so with less land and increasing production challenges.

This was the picture Dale Fedoruk painted on Wednesday during the Agronomy Update 2014 conference in Red Deer. The local agronomist discussed some of the agricultural trends he sees emerging, and hurdles related to land and resources topped his list.

Fedoruk said Alberta is projected to lose two million acres of land to urban sprawl by 2050.

“I live in Red Deer, and I think about how many quarter sections of land got consumed by urban sprawl over the last 13 years, since I moved here. It’s substantial.”

Some new land is coming under agricultural production, but Fedoruk thinks it will be a challenge for this source to keep pace with urban growth.

Even farmland that doesn’t end up under pavement and concrete is threatened, he said. China recently announced that eight million acres of land there will be taken out of production this year due to contamination from urban sprawl and industrial development over the past 30 years.

“So, we’re going to increase our production through efficiencies and plant breeding, etc. — good agronomy. But we’re also losing acres. Are we going to be able to keep ahead of that?”

There’s also no guarantee that farmers will become more productive. Some soils are becoming less fertile, and there’s the growing threat of herbicide-resistant weeds.

“This one really scares me,” said Fedoruk, noting that in 2012 there were 61 million acres of land in the United States with weeds resistant to glyphosate — also known as Roundup, among other trade names.

He suggested that the U.S. figure could now be as high as 75 million acres — which would be equal to the total area under cultivation in Canada. Productivity of some of that land has been diminished almost to the point of abandonment, he said.

Herbicide-resistant weeds are now gaining a foothold in Ontario, pointed out Fedoruk.

“Alberta, we’re coming up next.”

Among the other trends that Fedoruk identified were rising land values and low prices for agricultural commodities.

Increased public concern about food safety was also on his list, with this likely to translate into greater regulatory controls over agricultural production.

Fedoruk also noted the increasing popularity of canola among producers, and the interest in alternatives like soybeans and faba beans.

New methods of crop production and management are evident, including high-tech equipment and machinery, he said.

An encouraging development noted by Fedoruk is the growing number of young people who are entering agricultural institutions like Olds College.

Agronomy Update 2014 took place Tuesday and Wednesday, with agricultural experts speaking on a broad range of topics. It was organized by Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, and the Battle River Research Group.

hrichards@bprda.wpengine.com

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