In September, the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance held an online forum dubbed “The Food Dialogues,” a town hall-style discussion to address Americans’ questions about how their food is grown and raised and the long-term impact of the food they are eating—on their own health and the health of the planet.
The alliance includes prominent agricultural groups, including Ohio Farm Bureau and American Farm Bureau, that have collaborated to lead the dialogue about their commitment to continuous improvement and best production practices. Below are highlights from the conversation, or you can view excerpts from the forum.
“Historically, farmers maybe haven’t been the most active in interacting with consumers. We kind of had a philosophy that the world ended at our farm gate.”
“We understand that consumers will change over time. We’re not concerned about that; we think we can adapt on the fly.”~ Gary Corbett, CEO, Fair Oaks Farms
“The government does have very specific rules and regulations, but sometimes we run into a roadblock where simply consumers will decide not to accept a certain technology and that is society’s choice.”~ Wendy Winterstein, dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Iowa State University
To Invest or Not?
“In order (for my grandson) to come back to the farm, it takes a sizeable capital investment and that means leveraging some of the resources that grandpa has, leveraging them out for a long period of time. And that’s a hard decision to make…We’ve kind of figured out how to look at the markets, we’ve kind of figured out the weather patterns and all that. But right at this moment in time we’re having a very difficult time figuring out just what the consumer demands will be in the future, what their habits will be. Do you build a hog building that would bring up the income to the level we can bring in another (person)? I want my grandson and my son and my children to have as good an income, as good a lifestyle as their cousins that go to town. How do we do that? What’s the consumer going to say, what are the regulations going to say, what’s the future going to be for a hog building that we hope will be in production for 20 years or more. That’s a decision we have to make relatively quickly. We have to make it now.”~ Phil Bradshaw, Illinois corn and hog farmer
Luxury of Confrontation
“I think we have had far too much adversarial confrontation in this country at every level. I think it’s about time that we realized that this country needs us to come together, needs us to find consensus, no matter how difficult that might be, that our kids and the future of our children depend on us getting our act together. We don’t have and frankly can’t afford the luxury of confrontation; we’ve got to find consensus.”~ Tom Vilsack, secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture
More With Less
“For me the issue is how to think about food, not what to think about it. And we need to start realizing that there’s no silver bullet going forward. We’re going to have 2 billion more people, they’re going to have 2.9 times as much income, they’re going to consume twice as much food. To put that another way, in the next 40 years, we’ve got to produce as much food as we have in the last 8,000 on a finite planet. We’ve got to produce more with less. Less land, less water, less fertilizer, less chemicals. We’ve got to intensify production. If we want to have any biodiversity left, if we want to have any natural ecosystems— wetlands, forests, etc.—we have got to double up on production. We simply cannot expand farming onto the rest of the planet.
“We have to be very careful about not maximizing one solution at the expense of optimizing several.”~ Jason Clay, senior vice president of market transformation, World Wildlife Fund
“As we take technology, and we take science, we want to make sure we take some of the social values, and that is the welfare of animals. Because it indeed contributes not only to the safety of the food, but to the quality of the food and how we raise animals says a lot about, I think, the production that we will have throughout the world and the influence we will have on the world.
“To see the most expensive solutions be mandated is wrong, because it becomes elitist. And when you put animal welfare into a category that only rich people can afford, it’s wrong. So we want to broaden it and make choices available for animal welfare so it is not a barrier to trade, but a criteria to trade.”~ Kathi Brock, director of strategic partnerships, American Humane Association Farm Animal Program
“I tend to go back to a fairly basic level and say that we really need to pay attention to that land resource, because that really is the fundamental basis of the productivity we have in American agriculture…We’ve lost 23 million acres in the last 25 years of farmland. And it’s not always marginal farmland; half of it generally is prime farmland.
“I don’t think we can assume that the answers that have helped us meet the challenges of the last 50 years are going to be the same as what we’re going to have to do in the next 50 years. We’re to have to pay attention to some things that quite frankly we’ve often taken for granted, protecting the land base being one of those.”~ John Scholl, president, American Farmland Trust
Health and Nutrition
“It’s not just about feeding people, and that’s important, but it’s also about health and nutrition. There’s 31 million children every day who are part of the national school lunch program, 11 million children every day part of the school breakfast program. Sixty-five percent of those are on free and reduced price meals.”~ Frank DiPasquale, CEO, School Nutrition Association
“I’m not saying there isn’t research going on, but the levels of public research into agriculture are astonishingly low in real terms. And we have to turn that around if we want to really address some of these long term challenges, which is a problem because it costs money to do that. But we’re going to have to redirect some of these funds to more long-term purposes.”~ Dan Glickman, former secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture
“We have to talk about the marketplace and economics and prices. Consumers perhaps don’t like high prices; I don’t like high prices in the grocery store. But the reality is somehow the marketplace has to figure out a way to support the production of all the food that will be necessary by the time we get to that 2050 date.”“We’re all in this together. It doesn’t matter if you’re local, organic, conventional, biotech, free-range. That’s going to be part of it because consumers are going to demand choice, but at the same time we need to be producing food every way we can to make up that amount we’re going to need by 2050.”~ Bob Stallman, American Farm Bureau president
Importance of Food
“We have to figure out how to integrate human food production into the biological system otherwise there will not be a future. I think the huge challenge before us is to get more allies for the agricultural sector, because it’s less than 2 percent of the population, it’s under-invested in, and the changes that we need and the support that’s needed for the research and the innovation is not going to happen unless the American people rise up and say ‘We need it. We want healthy rural communities. We want healthy kids in schools. We want healthy farms and ranches. We want healthy animals.’ Well that’s only going to happen if we all rise up and do it.
“We’re working with everyone we can to get the message out that the food system is as important as the energy system and the health system. If you don’t have those three in shape, you’ve got a problem in your culture.”~ Michael Dimock, president, Roots of Change
“Of course there’s still problems. And I think we all, as good farmers, we try to be long term stewards of our animals and our environment. That’s so important to us.
“Economic sustainability and environmental sustainability do go hand and hand.”~ Eric Benson, president, JS West and Co.
A Closed System
“As a child I made an attempt to create a terrarium…It’s a self-perpetuating system. If you think about it, that’s really our challenge here on this planet. We are in that terrarium and we’ve got to figure out how to make it work. And that’s the problem. We can’t stop everything until we figure out how to make it work. We’ve got to keep going, we’ve got to produce the food, but ultimately that’s the level of sustainability that we have to meet.”~ Neal Van Alfen, dean, UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences
“We’re very technology neutral. It may be genetically engineered; it may be another genetic improvement. Farming practices are critical. Every farmer knows that you can’t just rely on seed alone. You also need to have ecologically based farming practices. The big issues are not the technology. The big issues are how can we use less land and water? How can we feed the poor and malnourished? How can we enhance soil fertility? And how can we reduce toxic inputs? These are the critical questions and we believe that we need to use every appropriate technology to achieve these goals of sustainability.”~ Pamela Roland, plant pathologist, UC Davis