WASHINGTON, Nov. 4, 2015 - Top executives of some of the leading food and agricultural businesses in the United States have teamed up with the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) in a bid to reframe the debate about sustainable agriculture in a changing climate.
DuPont, Elanco, Kellogg and Land O’Lakes are the initial members of a new CEO Council on Sustainability and Innovation that hopes to identify ways that they can “combat and adapt to the realities of increasing climate volatility, a growing population and other threats to a stable food supply.” BPC says the council’s work will produce a report to be released next year.
Former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, a BPC fellow, kicked off an hour-long discussion with three of the CEOs in Washington last week, saying industry is responding to market forces by adapting to changed weather and climate patterns and meeting customer demands.
“Feeding the world in a climate-compromised environment will be one of the defining challenges of the century,” Glickman said. “The food and agriculture sector not only has to adapt to these changing conditions but improve the resiliency and productivity of the entire food chain and mitigate the effect of a changing climate,” he added.
The executives were unanimous in their appraisal of the climate challenge but also agreed on the need to be more transparent and do a better job explaining the realities of food production.
“We need to raise the bar on what we do and then raise the bar on how we tell it,” said Jeff Simmons, president of Elanco, a global animal health company.
Farmers have “a great sustainability story,” said Chris Policinski, CEO of the farmer-owned Land O’Lakes cooperative. “We don’t tell it to anybody other than ourselves as farmers. We need to tell it to everybody.” Heightened consumer interest in where their food comes from “is the best thing that ever happened. What a fantastic opportunity to engage in this discussion.”
In just two generations, he said, the United States has been transformed from a time when a quarter of Americans farmed. “Farmers in this short period of time have been so productive that now we only need 1.4 percent – and the number gets smaller: every time I say it somebody corrects me because it goes down – to produce enough to feed all of us and beyond,” he added.
“Food and agriculture, broadly defined, is one of the great growth industries of our generation – one of the grand challenges of our generation,” Policinski said. “We need to make the discussion more robust than it is – more fact-based than it is. The good news is there is a lot of interest but we have to inform the discussion in a better way. We need to enrich the discussion to enable farmers to continue do the things they’ve done for generations – grow food more productively, more sustainably to feed the 9 billion” people who are estimated to populate the world by mid-century.
“Let us show you what sustainability means, authentic sustainability,” Policinski said. “Sustainability is productivity – authentic productivity using safe, proven technology,” he said. America enjoys “the safest, lowest-cost, most abundant food supply in history, right here, right now. Food is too important to allow emotion or nostalgia or any other agenda to set policy for this country and importantly beyond.”
Although the word “sustainable” is widely used in discussing the food system, “I have not heard two [people offer] the same definition yet,” said Elanco’s Simmons.
Increasing population and income growth will boost demand for animal protein 60 percent in the next 35 years, by some expert estimates, he said. “Already demand for milk, eggs and poultry is outpacing anticipated expectations,” but the increase in supply has been met by greater numbers of livestock and poultry. “That can’t continue,” he said.
“How do we move the average up in productivity? How do we move the average animal up in terms of productivity?” Simmons asked. “Do I believe we can give consumers what they want – a world without antibiotics in meat? Absolutely. We have 25 candidates in the pipeline to take antibiotics out of animal production. It’s going to take time.”
Moving precipitously to simply eliminate antibiotics would endanger animal health, he said. “We need healthy animals, a healthy food chain and healthy people.” Elanco has recently acquired two data companies, he said, as industry needs to invest in “big data and good technology.”
Kellogg Chairman John Bryant said that industry needs to “keep working to improve the transparency, wholesomeness and goodness and make food even better.” While consumers want good food and want to know more about it, “people don’t want to eat a chemistry set. They want real food. We have very robust labeling system in the U.S. The USDA organic label is one example. There is a lot of discussion around GMO (genetically modified organisms) labeling and that the USDA organic label is a great example of what we could do about non-GMO labels.”
BPC President Jason Grumet said the CEO council “will help kick-start a more robust national conversation about what’s already being done to promote sustainable food production and what more needs to be done.” Although there is extensive research into sustainability practices, he said, “there is little collective understanding of the strategies being deployed, nor is there public appreciation of adaptation challenges, mitigation opportunities, and the importance of agriculture in what must be a global conversation” that the council hopes to promote.
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