Whether you shop at Wegmans, Trader Joe’s, Publix, Kroger or any other grocery store, they all have one thing in common. Those aisles of beautiful, colorful fresh produce, lean meats, whole grain cereal, and everything in between all start with a farm, and probably a hard-working farm family. Over the past century, agriculture research gains in this country have been harnessed to work towards efficiencies in accomplishing a single mission: clothing, feeding, fueling, and sheltering the world using fewer resources. This under-appreciated innovation has given Americans the healthiest, safest, most affordable and most abundant food supply on earth, and we cannot take that for granted.
American farmers are amongst the most innovative people of our population. They are global leaders in technology adoption and sustainably intensifying production. Over the past century we’ve seen monumental yield and production increases on America’s farms. In 1950, the average corn yield was 38.2 bushels per acre; in recent years, it’s been as high as 176.4 bushels per acre. These productivity gains are not a coincidence. They are the result of American farmers deliberately using technology and innovation to more efficiently and effectively cultivate their land. The knowledge, skill and risk-taking business acumen required to be successful in agriculture match up with what it takes to be a successful industrial CEO.
Since 1935, the number of farms in the U.S. fell from 6.8 million to 2 million. The productivity increases on farms across the country allowed people to leave the farm for jobs in the cities. While there has been a significant decrease in the number of farms, the farm output of the remaining farms has skyrocketed by 295%. U.S. farm output is forecasted to be $430 billion in 2019, compared to $146 billion (adjusted for inflation) from the 1930s. Despite less land in operation, productivity increases have supported the rise of the U.S. in becoming a dominant competitor amongst our counterparts in the world marketplace.
Often unknowingly, those same technological increases on the farm have benefitted Americans nutritionally and financially. In 1950, almost 20% of disposable personal income was spent on food. But today, that number has dropped to just 6.4%, the lowest of any nation in the world. To compare, the average household in China spends about 21.7% of disposable income on food. If American households had to spend the same percentage of their incomes, we would have $1.8 trillion less to spend on other things. The productivity of America’s farmers has afforded us the ability to spend more of our income on things that aren’t food.
By 2050, the population of the world is expected to rise to an estimated 9.7 billion people, compared to our 7.6 billion today. If we are going to meet the challenge of feeding everyone, American farmers will have to continue making significant gains by utilizing technology and adapting to the ever-changing consumer market. President Trump has a strong affinity and affection for the American farmer and rural America. He sees the inherent risk involved in farming and the business abilities the agriculture sector has and wants to do everything to support them. He has charged us with increasing broadband connectivity across rural America, which will allow farmers and other rural Americans to utilize next generation precision agriculture technologies and help those communities prosper.
Unfortunately, our current regulatory framework has impeded technological innovation instead of facilitating it. The bottom line is: we need to do more, and that’s exactly why President Trump is putting America first and setting us on a course to modernize our regulatory framework so that it works for our farmers, ranchers and consumers. We need all the tools available to meet the challenge of feeding everyone now and into the future—if we do not put safe technology advances to work here at home, our competitors in other nations will. At USDA, we are putting our money where our mouth is through increased investment in research—starting with moving USDA’s Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture out of D.C. and closer to the American Heartland. The move allows us to redirect more funding for USDA research of critical needs like those that will help us feed the world’s growing population.
There’s an old proverb that says, “if man has not enough to eat, he has one problem, if he has enough to eat, he has many problems.” Because of agriculture innovation and increased technology, we as Americans have enjoyed a great bounty of harvest since the Great Depression. It is critical that those in cities, small towns and everywhere in between, remind themselves where their food came from and how much work went into getting that food to their table. So, if you ate today, thank a farmer.