May 23, 2014

Commentary - Optimism about Agriculture’s Adaptive Capacity

By Greg Page, Cargill Executive Chairman
This post is part of a series produced by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, marking the occasion of its fifth Global Food Security Symposium 2014 in Washington, D.C.

The impacts of a changing climate on food security projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Climate Assessment and now the Chicago Council on Global Affairs raise legitimate concerns about the global food system’s ability to meet increasing challenges. All the factors that influence food production become more interdependent when faced with the range of possible impacts of a changing climate. The question is whether the food systems upon which we rely can adapt.

At Cargill we are optimistic that the world’s farmers can harness the power of photosynthesis, adapt to changing conditions and produce all the food needed for an increasingly prosperous world on its way to nine billion people.

Farmers are innovators and consummate optimizers. Every spring, they weigh input costs, projected commodity prices, short- and longer-term weather forecasts, soil moisture and myriad other factors, then decide what and when to plant to achieve the best return on their investment of time, energy and capital. They persistently demonstrate the ability to adapt to changes in the environment and successfully adopt new technologies.

This market-driven adaptive capacity consistently confounds expectations of imminent trouble. Consider the story of this year’s corn crop. In late April and early May, lingering effects of a severe winter had planting well behind schedule across much of the Corn Belt. Then the weather turned. In one week, Iowa farmers planted nearly 7 million acres of corn, a record pace enabled by innovations such as GPS-guided tractors that precisely drop seed and fertilizer at rates optimized for soil conditions in individual fields. This kind of adaptation and resiliency has resulted in worldwide year-to-year variability in crop production that is no greater today than it was 35 years ago. 

The resilience displayed by Iowa’s corn farmers is enabled by advances in technology in which we must continue to invest to further improve the adaptive capacity of the global food system – adaptive capacity that becomes more important in the face of a changing climate. Already, advances in technology are providing us with rice that can survive being submerged, corn with improved drought tolerance and higher yielding genetics and fertilizer optimization that have enabled farmers to double the amount of rice, grain and oilseeds produced since 1975 without a significant increase in acreage.

But advances in genetics, agronomics, precision agriculture and more will never fully prevent crop failures. A higher potential for weather extremes could make regional crop failures more frequent. That is just one reason why open trade is essential to increasing food security. A global food system that is flexible and resilient enough to deliver sufficient food for all even when localized disruptions occur is one in which food can move freely from areas of surplus to areas of need.

That is a lesson we learned here in the U.S. two years ago when 2012’s drought ravaged the corn crop. Historically the world’s largest net corn exporter, the U.S. imported corn during the 2012-2013 crop year. For U.S. consumers, food-price increases were surely mitigated by the ability of U.S. livestock producers in the Southeast to use corn from Latin America to feed their animals. 

The global food system is already deeply interconnected and interdependent. Producing more food in the face of new challenges only magnifies the importance of these interconnections – and the resulting imperative of working together to protect and enhance the adaptive capacity of agriculture. The Chicago Council’s policy recommendations are an important step in beginning a serious dialog about the impact of a changing climate on food security. 


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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