ST. LOUIS, Mo.—U.S. and international farming operations concern Howard Buffett, founder of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. A major focus of the foundation is helping subsistence, small-scale farmers in Africa, but that doesn’t mean Buffett ignores commenting on U.S. farming systems that should be improved.

Quality soil is the most important thing that the U.S. has had to be self-sufficient in food and feed production by farmers and ranchers.

“We did a lot of damage over the years with the plow. It may have been considered a great invention at the time, but it was the greatest sod buster and probably destroyed more soil than we could have ever imagined,” said Buffett.  

“We need better policies and better practices to protect our most valuable asset, the soil,” he said during a presentation to media at Monsanto headquarters this week.

“We really have to focus on how we do better with what we have. We have been losing productive agricultural land on an average rate of 600 square miles per year since 1950. That is 23 million acres over the past 60 years or an area the size of Indiana. We have over 100 million acres of highly erodible land,” Buffet said.

“I think it should scare farmers, consumers, politicians and government agencies, but it doesn’t for a very a simple reason. We don’t suffer the consequences. We pay our seed bill and fertilizer bill as we farm now, but it is going to be another generation that pays Mother Nature,” he suggested.

He added, “Economists estimate the cost of soil loss in the U.S. at $37 billion a year and $400 billion globally, and I would say that is grossly underestimated. But more importantly, it goes well beyond economic impact. It results in hunger, malnutrition and actions that further degrade our environment.”

The reference to international soil loss brought Buffett to making comments about starvation and hunger globally. He transitioned by noting how his son pointed out that “no one is going to starve to save their soil.”

And starving is what is happening by many rural villagers in Africa who cannot produce enough food every year using their ancient production practices, seed varieties and unimproved soils. Buffet has personally seen, in his many travels to Africa, why people in some countries cannot worry about their soil. In one instance, a woman tried to give him her baby because she knew her baby was going to die from malnutrition unless it was taken out of the village.

Teaching improved farming techniques plus having the inputs available along with commitment of country leadership is key. Subsistence farmers aren’t doing something wrong; they just don’t have the answers, or they don’t have access to the answers.

It isn’t the question of whether biotechnology crops are an input for every country, but how such crops fit into specific situations, Buffett said. It will not be possible to bring biotechnology crops into the “really undeveloped countries” fast at all.

“Africa is 54 countries and 54 different decisions. It is not a continent-wide decision. You can pick countries and then places in those countries where the technology will transfer better than other areas. In the long run, I think it is foolish to not use it,” he said.

Buffett concluded by saying, “For all the people who are distracters to technology, GMO crops or whatever the technology, give us the solutions. When you walk out to a village and people are literally starving to death, give us the solutions. That [starvation] is a clear result of low productivity … So, what are the solutions if these aren’t the solutions? Tell us how you are going to get it done. Tell us how it works.”