A bevy of remedies may be needed to ensure American farm productivity keeps growing at the clip it has for more than a half century, according to experts in crop and livestock production and research at Wednesday's Ag & Food Policy Summit, sponsored by Agri-Pulse.
How best to keep up the pace of net gain in U.S. farm output? The Department of Agriculture analysts recently scored the aggregate net measure at 1.38 percent annually, on average, from 1948 through 2015. That level was accomplished, USDA estimated, from total gains in output averaging 1.48 percent while increases in the inputs averaged just 0.1 percent.
For starters, said Jim Borel, a retired vice president of DuPont Co., today’s farmers are so far producing a surplus overall. “We’re producing over 2,500 calories (of food) for each man, woman and child around the world today.” However, a third of food rots in storage or is otherwise wasted surplus, he says, and so the biggest challenges may be good storage, and “affordability and accessibility for food where and when it is needed.”
Craig Morris, vice president of international marketing for the National Pork Board, agreed that food production has to target what people want. “Will we produce the food in ways that consumers will accept?” he asked.
What’s needed in the future, though, to continue feeding the swelling global population, expected to exceed 9 billion by about 2050?
Public funded research is key, Wednesday’s panel agreed. With panelists focused largely on the innovations needed to boost productivity, Sonny Ramaswamy, director of USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, declared, “those innovations aren’t going to happen” without some increases in public funding of agriculture research.
All of the panelists argued for a more practical regulatory process, which reviews content of new products, instead of the processes used to breed crops and farm animals.
“Scientists have been screaming for 20 years . . . for regulations to be risk- and product-based rather than determined by the methods used to produce the product” said Alison Van Eenennaam, animal geneticist and biotechnologist at the University of California, Davis. She and Nina Fedoroff (pictured above), veteran biotechnologist and senior science adviser for OFW Law in Washington, argued for the U.S. to take a product-focused approach as soon as possible and try to lead world food regulation in that direction.
To make progress with new products, agribusiness and food companies have to work very hard to earn the trust of consumers when trying to introduce new products, Borel advised. “People who are investing in technologies have to find ways to be consistent and clear and responsible and proactive” in informing the public, he says.
Fedoroff wants USDA to make a more active role informing the public about the qualities and benefits of food products, rather than just finding the risks or problems with them. “There isn’t a voice trusted as much as the USDA, but they’re not doing a good job” at assuring food consumers about healthful qualities and safety of food products, she says. Positive and full descriptions could counter misinformed consumer views, for example, about genetically modified food products, and “that anything GM is bad,” she says.