Food Summit guests examine farm bill and ag production practices

By Sarah Gonzalez

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, May 25, 2012- The Senate Agriculture Committee's 2012 Farm Bill was officially introduced in the Senate as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan spoke at the Atlantic's 2012 Food Summit held in Washington, DC yesterday, where she said "I think that Senator Stabenow has beaten the odds getting the Farm Bill out of committee."

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“But we have a battle brewing because we have a House budget process that wants to take $30-plus billion out of the nutrition portion solely,” she said. 

“What people need to understand in the ag domain is there are going to be some very, very tough choices, either this year or next,” she said. “We are talking about $23-40 billion dollars that needs to be tossed out of the plan.”

National Pork Board CEO Chris Novak spoke during a panel on “Feeding a World of Nine Billion- Sustainably.” Novak, who represented the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, said committing to investments in research as well as using the land grant university system and incorporating organic practices into conventional agriculture are all necessary for agriculture's future.

The panel discussion focused on the use of technology in agriculture, and how it is viewed by consumers and various sectors of the food production industry. 

“There's a dialogue revolving around technology and the use of technology in American agriculture,” Novak said. “A lot of consumers see these innovations and develop a distrust of food production that you might term as ‘industrial.'”

"I've looked all over the Midwest for a factory farm and I just can't find one,” he added. “The idea that those farms are factory farms is driven only by fact that they are employing technology.”

Novak said technology and biotechnology in American agriculture has "helped us reduce soil erosion, water pollutants and has helped improve our environment.” 

“America has led the way in terms of ag research investments and development of ag technology,” he said. “Yet the challenge is how do we take that technology and transfer that to developing populations where there is adequate labor.”

When it comes to conventional and organic agriculture, Novak said it should not be an “either, or” situation and that hybrid farming practices “are going to have to be part of the solution” in feeding the world.

“We're growing more crops today with fewer resources than we did 50 years ago and that to me is a big success story,” he added. “Certainly technology has brought us improvements; it's going to continue to bring us improvements here in the U.S. and globally.”

However, Rodale Institute Executive Director Mark Smallwood claimed that conventional agriculture is depleting the soil by not using plants' natural biology to sustain itself. 

“Organic food is more nutrient-dense that conventional food,” he said, adding that he believes consumers will eventually be able to identify nutrient-dense foods in the grocery store, which will drive the industry to change its production habits. 

He recognized conventional farmers as “stewards of the land, but the system in place flat-lines the life in the soil,” he said. “When you talk about sustainability, it's about the life in the soil.”

He argued that studies over 30 years show no difference in yields between conventional and organic crops. Smallwood added that “hybrid in terms of conventional and organic is ‘phase two' and we have ‘phase three' being eventually 100 percent organic.”

World Food Program USA CEO Rick Leach said technology is important in efforts to feed the growing population, particularly in developing countries. 

“Technology works perfectly well with small scale farming,” he said. “I'm not in favor of mechanization, but would be in favor of scale neutral upgrades.”

“Mechanization is capital intensive and reduces labor in countries where they have enough labor,” he explained. “But there's nothing inappropriate about improving soil with mineral fertilizer, or giving farmers seeds that are more responsive to fertilizer and irrigation.”


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Story updated on 5-29-12 to note that Chris Novak spoke on behalf of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. 

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