The 2019 Nuffield International Contemporary Scholars Conference (CSC) took place in Ames, Iowa, from 9 to 17 March and provided attendees with an excellent overview and insight into US agriculture and the issues facing the sector there.
Sixty-seven Nuffield scholars from around the world participated in conference events, allowing for global perceptions to be discussed and challenged.
Comparing issues in Iowa and Ireland
While the scale of farming in Iowa and the approach by farmers there to solving problems may be very different to here in Ireland, many comparable issues face agriculture on both sides of the Atlantic.
Iowa is a major force in US agricultural production, boasting 30m acres of farmland, consisting of some of the richest and most productive soil in all of the US.
To put this in perspective, Ireland has approximately 12m acres of farmland (see Table 1).
Referred to as the heart of the heartland, Iowa is the second-highest ranking state for agricultural exports out of the US and on to world markets.
Iowa also helps fuel the nation’s vehicles, with over 25% of ethanol used in the US produced in the state.
The general outlook during the week-long conference was that agriculture in Iowa will continue to play a major role in the state’s economy.
However, it is evident that there are significant challenges facing the sector, particularly in relation to the environment and the impending threat of regulation.
Growth in agricultural production in Iowa has largely been driven by expansion on to new lands and increased acreage, a worrying trend in terms of sustainability that needs to be addressed.
Policy makers are keen that productivity growth should come from improved efficiencies and the adoption of improved breeding practice, precision agriculture and nutrient management, as well as disease prevention and eradication.
Water quality tops the environmental agenda, as Iowa and other Midwestern states have been under pressure to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous run-off that is entering waterways and contributing to what is known as the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
Every summer, a dead zone forms in the Gulf of Mexico where nutrients from the Mississippi river watershed, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus, fertilise the Gulf's surface waters to create excessive amounts of algae.
In relation to climate change and its potential impact, environmental risks are weighted only as equal to, if not less, than risks to the economy and health.
When discussing the relationship between agriculture and the environment, the majority of the conversation at the Nuffield CSC focused around water quality, climate change and the perceptions of agricultural impact versus the reality.
Little was mentioned of biodiversity, other than it may play an important part in increasing resilience to climate change.
In an environment where there is a can-do approach, farmers in Iowa are not used to regulation in the same way as we are in Europe and are fearful of higher costs for environmental compliance.
Generally, the US views the EU as overly restrictive in regard to the use of new technologies for production gains.
Vital member of the chain
The farmer was identified as a vital member of the chain of custody and must be represented at discussions relating to the adoption of technologies in practice.
Discussions around biotech and increased intensity being the potential answer to climate change were also prominent throughout the week.
One such example given was the US dairy industry, where cow numbers have reduced from 25m in 1950 to just over 9m last year.
Yet milk production has increased by 60% over the same period.
Does this mean that the carbon footprint of a glass of milk in 2019 has decreased by 66% compared with 1950?
It may not be quite that simple, but it does give food for thought.
Iowa is a state heavily reliant on pork production. The risk of African Swine Fever (ASF) is a major threat to the state and pig farmers in Iowa are vulnerable to an outbreak of the deadly disease.
There were harsh lessons learned during the Avian Influenza outbreak in 2015, when 30m of the 50m poultry birds in the state were infected.
Since then, biosecurity has improved, but there is still no national regime for animal identification (ID) in the US.
Pork and poultry producers are very open to tracking and traceability, but there is significant resistance from cattle producers across the US.
Farming in Iowa is heavily dependent on immigrant workers
Similar to Ireland, the demand for labour and successfully attracting human capital into agriculture is a key challenge facing the agriculture industry in Iowa.
Farming in Iowa is heavily dependent on immigrant workers, especially livestock, fruit and vegetable producers.
It has been reported that there are as many as 1.75m undocumented immigrants working in US agriculture today, with many of these in Iowa.
Farm groups argue that a failure to reform the labour policy would drive more production outside the US to countries such as Chile, Mexico and Brazil, while also putting at risk the nation's abundant and safe food supply.
As a state, Iowa has adopted several approaches to address this labour shortage, including the Grow From Within programme, which focuses on members of young farmer organisations such as 4-H, an extension programme for young farmers.
This extension programme aims to attract those from non-farming backgrounds to enter farming through marketing the agricultural industry as an opportunity for a career in science, technology, engineering, maths (STEM), marketing or engineering technology.
The state universities in Iowa have developed well-established extension programmes which facilitate knowledge transfer between university-led research programmes and farmers.
They strive to incorporate on-farm evaluations into research, to complete training with local farmers and apply practical application of research findings on local farms in conjunction with the farmer.
This allows farmers to feed back to the universities and have a say in the research conducted and ensure that research being carried out is relevant to and addressing the main issues of everyday practice.
Public sector investment and delivery of agricultural research and development (R&D), along with the success of the extension programmes, has been highlighted as a main attributing factor to growth within the agricultural sector.
Farmer representative bodies also place a large emphasis on the importance of research to improve productivity, with groups such as the Iowa Soy Bean Association allocating up to 40% of their budget to research every year.
The US is one of the world’s largest exporters, but also one of its largest importers, hence reciprocal trade is very important to the country’s economy.
Agriculture is the only US sector to maintain a positive trade balance.
Every $1 spent on marketing US agricultural exports generates $30 in income.
Current trade relations with China are directly affecting grain and soya bean growers in Iowa and agriculture has been the collateral damage in the ongoing trade tension between China and the Trump administration.
One of the highlights of the week in Iowa was a visit to the inspiring venue that is the World Food Prize in Des Moines.
The World Food Prize was founded by Norman E Borlaug, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his lifetime’s work to feed a hungry world.
The World Food Prize is an annual $250,000 award that Borlaug hoped would both highlight and inspire breakthrough achievements in improving the quality, quantity and availability of food in the world, and which is now often referred to as the Nobel prize for food and agriculture.
This visit to the World Food Prize brought home the serious disconnect between the primary food producer and the consumer, particularly as there is a growing move away from science in dictating agricultural production in western society.
Instead, consumer perception appears to be increasingly driving production practices.
Long term, this will not deliver sustainable food production for the world.
There is a growing disconnect between the primary producer and the consumer.The lack of traceability in the US will be a major issue for US exporters trying to open new market around the world. Attracting human capital into agriculture is a key challenge facing the industry in Iowa. There is an increasing focus on attracting those from non-farming backgrounds to enter the workforce through marketing the agricultural industry as an opportunity for a career in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Growth in agriculture has largely been driven by acreage expansion. Future productivity growth should come from greater efficiencies and the adoption of improved breeding practices, precision agriculture and nutrient management and disease prevention and eradication.
The five Nuffield scholars for 2019 are Ciara O’Hanlon, Pat O’Meara, Karina Pierce, Ailish Moriarty and Alison Holmes.