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Why modern agriculture is important

There is really little mystery about why agriculture is important—it is the physical foundation of  human energy, health, and physical well being—all key components of every important human  activity. To the degree these components are missing, the human existence is defined primarily by the effort necessary to provide them. Making them more widely available at lower costs increases the capacity of any population to invest in more productive work, education, economic development and cultural activities.

The basic facts are clear:

  • More people the world over eat more and better because of modern agriculture. Increased production continues to enable steadily improving diets, reflecting increased availability of all foods, dietary diversity and access to high-protein food products;
  • The additional food modern systems provide has enabled hundreds of millions of people to realize more of their potential and better lives—thus enhancing the achievements of all, from students to retirees. It increases workforce productivity and generally supports human development and growth;
  • The current hunger and malnutrition that extends to some one billion people reflects poor policies, low productivity and low incomes. Failure to continue to apply new technologies to advance productivity on the farm and across the food system simply worsens every aspect of these problems, especially those forced on individuals and families who live in poverty. To a very large extent, current food insecurity problems reflect bad policies, poor infrastructure and low economic productivity in the nations where these conditions occur, rather than a physical lack of food or food production capacity;
  • The significant hunger and malnutrition that persist in many parts of the world would have been far worse had agricultural systems not grown and developed as they did;
  • The physical pressures on the environment that have become increasingly prominent public concerns have been greatly ameliorated by modern agriculture, which has reduced:
  1. The need to expand land area, and thereby reduced pressure to cultivate fragile lands and forested areas. Modern agriculture
    includes successful new technologies, including biotechnology to enable both higher yields and reduced environmental impacts. These reduce the land, fertilizer and pesticide use per unit of output;
  2. Pressure on grassland, forestland and cropland thus increasing wildlife habitat as a result;

While the unintended negative environmental consequences of modern agriculture are frequently noted, little mention is ever made of the negative environmental impacts that frequently arise from smallholder farming, especially from ―slash and burn‖ primitive systems in wide use in developing countries where vertical rows are often planted up steep hillsides, resulting in some of the world’s heaviest soil erosion, badly polluted watercourses and many other problems of both efficiency and sustainability. The lack of sustainability of these practices can be seen in the fact that they typically lead to abandonment of successive plots year after year;

Processing technology and handling advancements contribute enormously to improved food safety through pathogen reductions and large reductions in post-harvest losses that further increase food supplies. Pasteurization of milk, canning, freezing, and other processing technologies significantly reduce health risks associated with food. Threats from bacteria and other contaminants are still important, but the risks of illness and death are far less than in the past, a fact that is widely underappreciated;

Modern agriculture brings enormous economic and social benefits to consumers including:
o Improved quality of life and living standards as food costs decline. This effectively raises consumer incomes since it leaves greater purchasing power for other consumer goods, for education, health care, leisure, etc., a trend that has been a major driver of economic growth in developed countries, and in some developing countries, as well. Today, consumers in the United States spend less than 10% of their disposable income for food while many in the developing world spend from half or more of their income on food, a huge drag on quality of life. It is now widely recognized that the development of modern food system has been a major factor in improving the standard of living enjoyed in much of the world today;

  • When consumers spend the major share of their income and virtually all of their daily efforts simply to find food, little money or time is left for human investments. This ―survival treadmill‖ characterizes the lives of most smallholder farmers, especially in developing countries;
  • Modern agriculture increases global political stability by making more food available, improving its quality and making it accessible to more people.
    o Without the advances that characterize modern agriculture, the world arguably would be a much more dangerous and volatile place because more people would be food insecure—as the food price spikes of mid-2008 clearly illustrated.
    o Development of a robust, rules-based trading system has been extremely important in improving food distribution and increasing accessibility in food-deficit areas.

The major threat to modern agricultural development comes not from lack of interest and willingness to invest by farmers, but from increasingly vocal opposition from a constellation of activists who have succeeded in shifting agricultural policies in several areas. This threat is discussed in detail in the following sections.

(Source – http://www.globalharvestinitiative.org/Documents/Motes%20-%20Modern%20Agriculture%20and%20Its%20Benefits.pdf)

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