11/07/2012 01:41 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2013

A Brit Down on the Farm in Iowa

Flickr: Dodo-Bird

Iowa's corn and soybean harvest is now in the silos. The yields are about a quarter down on normal, not as much as was feared given the record drought this year. In Iowa they received less than 4 inches of rain in the summer months, the driest since 1936.

While I was attending the World Food Prize events in Des Moines, the state capital, I took an afternoon off to visit a farm in central Iowa. At 4000 acres it dwarfs the family farms in Sussex in the south of England where I live. Yet it too is a family farm, owned and expanded by the same family since an initial 80 acres were purchased in the 1880s. Ron Heck, the present owner, farms the land with his wife, their daughter and her husband, helped by some extra labor at planting and harvesting. They make a decent living. Others with smaller farms -- 400 acres or thereabouts -- usually rely on a spouse who earns a living to augment the income, as a schoolteacher for example.

I asked Ron whether the drought was a sign of climate change. He was skeptical. He thought the climate was always changing: "Droughts come every 20 years or so. We will keep on farming and take whatever happens." I suggested he might be fortunate in his seed companies, who were anticipating that droughts might become more frequent and intensive in the future and were breeding accordingly. Paul Schickler, the president of the Pioneer seed company headquartered in Iowa, reckons this year's harvest has held up better than expected because of the quality of the new corn and soybean varieties of recent years.

Over the coming winter Ron will be pouring over the catalogs, talking to extension agents and to his neighbors to select the seed for next year. Even though he grows only two crops he has a wide range of varieties to choose from, suited to different soils, environments and farming practices, and to different markets. He buys from four seed companies. Pioneer alone has 300 different corn (maize) varieties on sale.

Virtually all his seed is genetically modified (GM) as is that of his neighbors, the soybean with a gene that allows the crop to be sprayed with the Roundup herbicide and the corn with the Bt gene that gives it resistance to corn borer (he grows some non-GM corn to help reduce the likelihood of corn borers evolving resistance to Bt).

In some respects he is an organic farmer, not in the strict definition of the term but in his focus on maintaining the organic matter in the soil. His soil is rich in nitrogen and organic matter laid down over thousands of years by the tall grass prairie before the advent of the farmers. He only adds fertilizers in small quantities and not every year. Most important, by spraying with herbicide he does not need to plow -- his old plow equipment lies rusting in the corner of his yard. The stalks and dead leaves of the corn and soybean remain after harvest and rot down into the soil, conserving its organic matter and, as was so clearly demonstrated this year, helping it to retain moisture. New varieties with deeper roots were able to tap this moisture in the soil.

It is not a style and form of agriculture suited to the farmers around my village in England, although it might be appropriate, in part, to East Anglia. But it does seem to suit Iowa and it is highly productive and, in many respects, environmentally sustainable. With yields of corn at 180 bushels per acre (over 11 tons/ha) and of soybean at 55 bushels (nearly 4 tons/ha) its yields are among the highest in the world.

About half of Ron's soybean and some of his corn is trucked to the railhead then by train to the Pacific Northwest for shipment to China, where it goes to satisfy China's unquenchable appetite for feed for its burgeoning livestock industry. The rest of his soybean and some of his corn is turned into feed for Iowa's livestock. Most of Ron's corn is sold to a local ethanol plant.

Iowa ranks first in corn and soybean production in the U.S. and the future looks good. Iowa farmers are doing their bit to feed the world. Indeed in a 'back of the envelope' calculation, Ron worked out that Iowa could feed 600 million people. But this level of production cannot be guaranteed year in and year out, and the threat of climate change is real. For farmers like Ron Heck, adapting to changes in the climate is made possible through the breeding work of U.S. seed companies. For smallholder farmers in the developing world, however, whose needs are often not served by large seed companies, adapting to and coping with climate change is going to be all the harder.

Gordon Conway's book, One Billion Hungry: Can we feed the world?, has just been published by Cornell University Press.