by: Wes Ishmael

If you've grown weary of the daily doomsayer stories chronicling the assumed demise of American democracy and capitalism, then take a thumb through The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050 by Joel Kotkin. He makes a compelling argument for the United States' potential to represent the youngest, most vibrant economy in the world within the next 38 years.

Painting with a broad brush, Kotkin says much of the potential has to do with population numbers and age. By 2050, he says there are supposed to be another 100 million people living in the United States, about 25 percent more than today, or around 400 million altogether.

As Boomer generation offspring become parents themselves, Kotkin explains by 2050 about a fifth of the U.S. population will be more than 60 years old. In Europe and much of eastern Asia, at least a third of their populations will be that old.

While population in many of the world's developing nations declines, America's will continue to grow, Kotkin says, both through native births and through continued immigration. Spun differently, he points out the current fertility rate in the U.S. is 50 percent greater than that of Russia, Germany and Japan. The U.S. fertility rate is also higher than that in China, Italy, Singapore and most of Eastern Europe.

Fast-forward to 2050 and Kotkin estimates that the U.S. population will be larger than that of the entire European Union combined; four times larger than Russia's. He also says by 2035 China's population is likely to begin declining.

What all of that has to do with economies is obvious. When you grow numbers, maintaining a given standard of living requires growing the economy. Throughout its history, over the long haul, the U.S. population has never settled for a declining standard of living.

Kotkin could be wrong, of course. But, he could be no more wrong than the countless Chicken Littles who have erroneously predicted America's demise through the decades.

Assuming that Kotkin is close to being right, we stand upon the threshold of unimaginable change, cramming 100 more million people into the same sized country in less than four more decades. Ponder the potential ramifications, how communities and states must change, how the infrastructure has to change and it makes the head spin. That includes Kotkin's affirmation that the future he envisions requires a renaissance in manufacturing and blue collar trades in this country.

Arguably, some of the hoity-toity of society are already beginning to recognize how essential and valuable folks are who are unafraid of working hard and getting dirty.

Agriculture Must Continue to Shine

More people in this nation and continued population growth also means more food must be produced that at any time in history. In fact, various estimates peg the need for global food production to double by 2050.

Consider just the estimated need for increased meat production. “Economists estimate that by the year 2050, global meat production must increase by 73 percent to meet the expected 43 percent boost to the world's population,” say analysts in Living in a World of Decreasing Resources & Increasing Regulation: How to Advance Animal Agriculture. That's a white paper produced by synthesizing data presented at this spring's annual conference of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture.

According to that white paper, “Three other basic factors driving global demand for animal protein are economic growth and income, the rising middle class of countries—particularly China and India—and urbanization.”

In terms of cattle, specifically, economists estimate global beef production will have to grow by 58 percent in the next 38 years to meet anticipated global demand.

Climbing such a steep hill in such a short period of time will require harnessing technology to a greater degree than the industry has in the past. That's saying something.

“Technology has been key to past production and efficiency in animal agriculture,” say the white paper analysts. “For example, in the beef industry, technology has resulted in each pound of beef produced in the United States in 2007 requiring 14 percent less water and 34 percent less land than in 1977. In the dairy industry, every gallon of milk cows produce today has a 63 percent smaller carbon footprint than it did in 1944. Technology has helped make food more affordable, i.e. today's dairy farmers produce 50 percent more milk from 64 percent fewer cows than in 1944.”

Here's another way of looking at it, according to the white paper: “In 1940, one person in U.S. agriculture could only feed 19 people. By 1960, one farmer could feed 26 people. Today, a farmer feeds 155 people worldwide. Advances in technology means fewer people are needed in agriculture, allowing individuals to pursue other professions. They become engineers, computer programmers, researchers who discover new cures, doctors who heal more children, teachers who educate today's children, etc. If technology was frozen in the year 1955, it would require an additional 450 million acres—the total land mass of Texas, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and Oklahoma—to produce the beef being producing today.”

By one economist's estimate in the white paper, 70 percent of the estimated need for increased food supply, “will have to come from advancements in efficiency‐improving technology: practices, products and genetics.”

“Constraints in the world's ability to feed all its people include land availability, water supply, technology challenges, climate, energy availability and cost, food waste and losses, food safety and government policy,” according to the white paper. “These constraints, therefore, put the onus on animal agriculture to increase efficiency.”

Efficiency Now

Obviously, claiming the need for increased efficiency is exponentially easier than actually accomplishing it. The cry for increased efficiency has been such a dog-eared mantra for so long that it runs too easily over the brain rather than through it. Plus, human nature hears the need expressed as part of a sweeping futuristic view and says, “I'm already doing all that I can.”

Undoubtedly, achieving the type of production gains mentioned in this column will require new technology that is only starting to perk on a lab bench, or some new innovation not yet imagined. For my money, though, there's plenty of production potential in further adoption of existing technology.

As an example, in general terms, feeding ionophores is one of the most straight-forward economic decisions there is to increase pounds for pennies; the same with implanting cattle. According to the National Animal Health Monitoring System Beef 2007-2008 (NAHMS 2007), only 11.9 percent of beef cow operations that year implanted any calves prior to weaning.

Neither technology is new; both have proven their worth for decades. If everyone was using the technology, though, there would be no need for the product advertising and extension fact sheets that still surround them.

That's before you consider old reliables like deworming, effective vaccination, confined calving seasons and Body Condition Scores.

That's before you consider genetic selection and especially the power of managing maternal heterosis, a technology that continues to languish on the shelf for much of the industry.

That's before considering the growing opportunity for artificial insemination that comes with effective synchronization and the timed breeding—no heat detection—of mature cows. According to NAHMS 2007, 7.6-7.9 percent of the operations used AI or ET.

That's before considering what's possible when the proverbial surface of genomics is finally scratched.

The list goes on.

Something Kotkin says at the end of his book about the future of America applies equally to the future of U.S. agriculture and the U.S. beef industry: “For all of its problems, America remains, as the journalist John Gunther suggested over 60 year ago, ‘lousy with greatness.' The elements essential to forge a successful nation of 400 million remain very much in our reach, there for the taking.”

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