OAK BROOK, Ill. — Sustainability is a process not an end point.

“Sustainability is a complex issue,” said Marty Matlock, professor of biological and agricultural engineering at the University of Arkansas. “Being sustainable means responding to threats and opportunities in a way that keeps you in business.”

Sustainability is the land ethic in U.S. agriculture, Matlock said during his presentation at the North American Strategy Conference on Animal Agriculture, hosted by the Center for Food Integrity.

“The land stays and the generations move on,” he added. “We know we’re not sustainable when we go out of business and fail.”

Matlock emphasized that sustainability is not just about America, it is a global challenge.

“Last month I presented at the Global Feed and Food Congress in South Africa,” he said. “This is a global conversation, not just a U.S. conversation.”

The rate of change in the agricultural industry is increasing for several reasons including population demand, Matlock explained.

“There are more of us, and that’s a successful thing for our species,” he said. “And we’re more prosperous than we’ve ever been.”

The challenge, he added, is the population by 2050 could be 12 billion.

“Or it could taper off and be 8 billion in 2050, but the most recent estimator is at 10 billion people,” he said.

“The population of the world in 2050 depends on how many people are born in the next four years. It’s math. There’s no magic.”

Matlock identified several ways to reduce the rate of population growth, including the introduction of technology.

“When technology and cultures collide, technology always wins,” he said. “Living on the edge of subsistence is a definition of death delayed — subsistence agriculture is not good for anybody.”

Increasing human prosperity also can reduce population growth.

“People have babies because they’re in dire straits,” Matlock said. “We’re having fewer babies because we don’t need them for a prosperous future, more kids are surviving, they are not necessary to work the land and kids are not necessary for your old age security.”

In the next 37 years, Matlock said, “we’ve got 3 billion people coming to dinner, and they’re not from around here.”

Most of the increase in population will occur in less-developed worlds.

“The challenge is they don’t have the same technological opportunities we have,” he said, “so they’re going to buy a lot of stuff.”

Universities are struggling to get funding from the federal government, according to Matlock.

“We’re at about 1982 equivalent dollars for research in agriculture, and it is going down,” he said.

However, he added, farmers are funding research projects with their checkoff dollars.

“We need all hands on deck for agricultural research now.”

On as positive note, with the increasing interest by consumers about where their food comes from, “we’re seeing unprecedented interest in agricultural sciences amongst our young people, and they’re coming from towns,” Matlock said.

Animal agriculture is an important aspect of global food production.

“The role of animal agriculture is critically important to human well-being, and it will be more important in the future,” Matlock said.

“Global meat production is going to increase dramatically and double to 465 million tons by 2050. Global milk production will almost double to 1.043 billion tons by 2050.”

Matlock noted the difference between persistent and important issues.

“Persistent issues include locally grown, GMO crops, organic crops and natural,” he said. “Important issues from the sustainability perspective are water use efficiency, soil erosion, soil organic carbon, land use change and biodiversity loss.”

There is nothing wrong with locally grown, organic or natural as long as one can make a living from them, Matlock said.

“But don’t confuse that with sustainability,” he said. “Sustainability is about staying in business and making sure your kids can stay in business.”

Elements of sustainable agriculture included people, profit and planet.

“When you keep all three in balance, somewhere in the middle you find sustainability,” Matlock said. “It will be different tomorrow than today because everything is changing and everything is connected.”

Matlock discussed several stages of technological adoption.

In the subsistence stage, there is a significant impact when maize production is doubled from a half-ton per hectare to 1 ton per hectare with a half of sack of fertilizer.

“That’s the difference between starving children and kids going to school,” Matlock said. “During mechanized adoption, we see huge increases fast. The efficiencies have been through the roof in U.S. agriculture.

“But there is a point where you can’t squeeze much more efficiency out,” he said. “That’s the optimization point, and we’re at the early stages of that in the U.S.”