A top administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture visited Cal Poly on Tuesday to discuss ways to feed a world population that’s expected to balloon from 7 billion today to more than 9 billion by 2050.
Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, visited Cal Poly to tour its agricultural facilities — including its new Strawberry Sustainability Research and Education Center.
Ramaswamy also gave a talk on the future of agriculture titled, “Setting the table for a flatter, hotter, more crowded earth.”
The director of an agency that has granted millions of dollars to Cal Poly for ag-related research over the past several years, Ramaswamy said that farmers are facing a host of challenges that must be overcome to feed, clothe and shelter an expanding global population.
The obstacles include climate change, water constraints, increasing urbanization, environmental degradation, and changing income and diets.
Societal issues connected to food supply — poverty and the need for alternative energy to replace oil consumption — also present challenges.
“The farmer is at the middle of everything we do,” Ramaswamy said. “And the farmer is facing many challenges, a list of them we call wicked problems.”
At the heart of the “wicked problems” list is the prediction that China’s population will grow by about 400 million over the next 35 years and India will add 300 million people.
Ramaswamy said that the Chinese eat 50 percent of the world’s pork and Indians, known for having a plant-oriented diet, are increasingly eating more meat. Other countries, including the U.S., will add to the population growth.
The farming population is aging, with an average age of 58.3 in the U.S., indicating the need to encourage a younger demographic to enter agriculture as a career and fill supply needs.
But despite the scope of problems, Ramaswamy said he believes solutions are possible, using the principle that the world is interconnected and challenges may be overcome with shared resources and ideas.
In particular, technology can help make farming and food consumption more efficient, he said.
Some of the research his agency has funded has included exploring how robots and sensors used to identify weeds and pathogens can help reduce the manpower needed to farm — and minimize food waste.
Ramaswamy said 131 billion pounds of food is wasted per year in the U.S., which equates to about 1,200 calories per day per person.
“The recommended intake is 2,200 calories per day,” Ramaswamy said. “Of course, many people exceed that amount, and we have a problem with obesity in our country. But that still means half of what could feed the country is being wasted.”
Ramaswamy envisions a future in which products such as milk has a sensor to determine when it should be thrown out, rather than a sell-by date that can be inaccurate, he said.
Other improvements to agricultural methods could include the widespread use of recycled wastewater for crop irrigation.
“One billion gallons of treated sewage water is being dumped into the ocean in San Diego every day,” Ramaswamy said. “Recycled water could be used for farming north of San Diego, and farmers there could give up their water rights. There’s nothing wrong with taking sewage, purifying it, and using it for agricultural purposes.”
Ramaswamy also predicted that drones will be a heavily used tool to identify pathogens.
He encouraged Cal Poly to continue to seek funding for research and praised the campus’ new strawberry field, which was planted in November.
The field is analyzing biofumigations, applying an ecologically sensitive method of eradicating insects that could be used by organic farmers and phase out the use of methyl bromide as an insecticide. Methyl bromide has been identified as an ozone-depleting chemical.