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Published September 16, 2013, 09:44 AM

Be skeptical of 'peak ag'

A few years ago, midway through the growing season, I asked a veteran farmer about his crops. He said his immediate area was dry and some of his fields were deteriorating.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

A few years ago, midway through the growing season, I asked a veteran farmer about his crops. He said his immediate area was dry and some of his fields were deteriorating.

Then he shrugged and said, “Yeah, there are challenges. But this is a great time to be farming. The tools we have today are amazing, and they keep getting better.”

I think of that whenever I read about “peak agriculture.” If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s the belief that, sooner or later, world food production will reach a plateau and then decline permanently. Advocates of the concept say looming water and fuel shortages, combined with soil mismanagement, will cripple the world’s ability to produce food.

Think of peak ag as a cousin to “peak oil,” the belief that, sooner or later, world petroleum extraction will reach a peak and then decline.

I’m not a geologist or petroleum engineer, but I’m skeptical that peak oil will occur anytime soon. Sure, the world’s oil supply is finite; we learn that in elementary school. Someday, inevitably, world oil production will fall. But will that day come in 10 years, 50 years or 200 years?

It’s encouraging that oil once deemed inaccessible or uneconomical is being tapped, thanks to technological advances. North Dakota’s Bakken formation is a perfect example.

Legitimate concern, but …

I’m not an agronomist, either, but I’m also skeptical that peak ag will occur anytime soon.

Sure, there are major, legitimate concerns about water supplies worldwide. Some smart people even say fresh water is a bigger concern globally than oil. But plant breeders are coming up with new varieties that require less water, and technological advances are reducing the amount of water used in irrigation.

Fuel use in agriculture is another concern, especially if you believe in peak oil. Even if you’re skeptical of peak oil, as I am, you’ll agree that ag producers should reduce fuel consumption, if only to cut expenses. In fact, most Upper Midwest farmers are using less fuel, in large part because they’re reducing the number of times they run equipment over a field during the growing season.

Petroleum also is used in fertilizer and pesticide, and peak oil would threaten that use. Again, the question is whether peak oil is likely anytime soon.

Threats to soil health might be the biggest concern in world food production. Soil is fragile and irreplaceable; it needs to be treated with care and respect.

I can’t speak for farmers elsewhere in the world, but most producers in the Upper Midwest are determined to do the right thing with soil health.

Sadly, though, it’s politically incorrect in mainstream ag circles to say so publicly, there are exceptions. The chief culprits are farmers who pay high cash rent for land, then skimp on good stewardship practices to save a few bucks. I’m not sure what the solution is; public shaming of the malefactors, like the Puritans used to do, might be worth a try.

Peak ag probably sounds plausible to a lot of people. But I suspect it shortchanges the contributions of ever-improving technology. True, technology often carries a downside that’s not immediately apparent. Glyophsate-resistant weeds are a powerful example of that.

Whatever its downside, however, technology provides farmers with great tools. As long as the tools keep improving — and farmers continue to make use of them — we can hold peak ag at bay.