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Our Challenges, Our Future

Dean Rick Roush provides his perspective on the college.

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In the College of Agricultural Sciences, we’re training students for a future in which their careers may take them anywhere, even if we hope that they’ll return to Pennsylvania. Thus, it’s important for us to think globally about the challenges facing agriculture, as well as human health and the environment.

There are many such challenges, most of which are interrelated. Since I was born, the world’s population has increased from about 3 billion to more than 7 billion, and is expected to exceed 8 billion in 15 years, by even the most conservative projections. It could potentially reach 10.9 billion by 2050, which will be during the careers of our students.

Already, a billion people are malnourished. While it’s true that more could be fed with a better distribution of food, distribution of food in and of itself is a huge logistical and political challenge, and it is not really a substitute for ensuring that countries can meet most of their own needs locally. Most transportable food is in the form of nonperishable grain, and only 8 percent of world grain production is traded internationally.

By 2050, agriculture will need to produce 60 percent more food globally, and 100 percent more in developing countries. It’s been claimed that more food will be needed in the next 50 years than has been consumed in our entire history. And yet, since I was born, the amount of cropland per person has dropped from an acre to less than half an acre, due to population growth, but also to urban sprawl and losses due to erosion, salt, and reductions in soil moisture.

So we have to produce more food on half the land. We need to intensify production, and that takes water. Agriculture is already the most water-intensive industry, accounting for at least two-thirds of the water drawn from rivers, lakes, and aquifers in many countries, but agriculture is not the only challenge. Global water demand for manufacturing industries, for example, is expected to increase by 400 percent from 2000 to 2050. During the 20th century, domestic water use increased more than 15 fold.

The United Nations reports that our planet will face a 40 percent shortfall in fresh water supply by 2030 and a 55 percent shortfall by 2050, while 20 percent of global groundwater is already overexploited. There will be water shortages in 50 percent of all river basins by 2030.

For brevity, I’m not even describing the challenges for water quality, except to note that 800 million people continue to live without access to an improved water source, while many more are without a safe and sustainable water supply.

The United Nations Deputy Secretary-General noted in March, “Water is one of the highest priorities for development and lives in dignity. . . . The lack of water causes individual tragedies. And it also constitutes a growing threat to international peace and security.”

And all this, even without the potential impacts of climate change. A general impact of climate change for the world’s cropping regions is not only warmer and more variable climates but also drier conditions. This has been the trend in Australia, for example, over the last 20 years.

The predicted impact in the United States, for example, includes that more than one in three counties could face a “high” or “extreme” risk of water shortages by 2050. Drought may turn out to be much bigger than just California.

But there are things we can do, and there is hope. One key is for the international community to dramatically improve international water-supply management. There already have been successes in international agreements and in such practices as water trading.

More broadly, improvements in tactics for improving water quality and conservation will play a key role in ensuring our ability to irrigate our crops and green our cities with vegetation to reduce the heating that would otherwise occur from buildings and roads in our cities, heating that will be amplified with climate change.

These are among the “big-picture” issues on which we must educate our students and the wider community, who are dependent on our agricultural systems for food.

—Rick Roush, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences