Diverse viewpoints shaping food production

Buckeye Farm News

A recent summit hosted  by the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) sought to shed light on a number of factors that could influence how food is produced.  Ohio Farm Bureau Federation (OFBF) is a member of CFI, which aims to build trust in the food system so farmers and others can maintain their freedom to operate.  Here, are excerpts from the discussion.  

“If it’s a choice between cutting a tree and feeding your kid, the tree’s going to lose every time.” ~ Jason Clay, World Wildlife Fund

Increased competition for resources as the global population reaches more than 9 billion people in the coming years will put pressure on land use decisions.

Recognizing this, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a leading environmental group, has reached the position that intensification of agricultural production is key to preserving biodiversity and natural ecosystems.

“We are literally eating the planet,” warned Jason Clay, WWF’s senior vice president of market transformation. Likewise, David Bergvinson, a senior officer on the agricultural development team of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, noted “There just isn’t room to grow.”

However, both acknowledged that advancements in production can’t come with the same environmental price tag as they have in the past – that a second Green Revolution would have to be “greener.”

 “We’ve got to intensify production, but we’ve got to do it sustainably,” Clay said.

The WWF has shifted its focus in recent years, seeing that agriculture was the main driver of land use.  It is now working with 100 major companies that have influence over 50 percent of global agricultural production.  Sustainable systems – those that can be more productive while using less land, water, chemicals and other inputs – will also allow businesses to survive economically, Clay argues.

The critical questions for him are ones that focus on outcomes.

“How do we use less to produce more from less,” he asked.

Clay’s position suggests some debates about how technology is applied in food and agriculture might distract from more important questions about sustainability. For example, he argues that improved plant genetics will play a key role in more sustainable production.  And that may mean genetic engineering – or not.

“We’d be more interested in the results rather than the technology,” he said. 

“The bottom line question that every consumer is going to ask you is what are the benefits to me and my family.” ~ Susan Borra, Food Marketing Institute

Supermarkets see their customers an average of 1.7 times a week, more than any other business, according to Susan Borra, senior vice president of communications for the Food Marketing Institute, a food retailer trade association.

“We need to word our conversations very carefully because (consumers) do know a lot about food,” she said. Borra said the reality is that food retailers’ top priority is developing customer loyalty, not advocating or defending methods of food production.

“When you’re selling 38,000 products, you don’t have all the stories,” she said.

At the same time, Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, said his organization’s research shows that there are a number of consumers who are not only uninformed about how food is produced, they’re uninterested.  Therefore, farmers and others should direct conversations toward those who do have an interest in food, but are not dogmatic in their positions.

“They come to the discussions with a relatively high level of skepticism, but they’re willing to engage,” Arnot said. In the past, he said farmers incorrectly thought that providing more information would be enough to tear down the wall that divided them from consumer trust.

“Communicating shared values is the key to getting the drawbridge to come down,” Arnot said. Consumers are concerned that the food industry puts profit over principle, he said. And, while they trust farmers, they’re not sure that today’s agriculture is still farming.

Arguing the need for profitability and productivity is not likely to be persuasive, he said.  Put bluntly, “Nobody cares if it’s good for you, they care if it’s good for them.”

“This is enormously complex and complicated.” ~ Jim Moseley, co-chair, AGree

Former U.S. Department of Agriculture official Jim Moseley said as he has engaged more broadly in conversations regarding the future of agriculture, he has come away with more questions than answers.

Moseley is co-chair of AGree, a new collaborative initiative working to develop comprehensive and lasting change in agricultural policy.

“It’s frustrating to consider the enormity of the task but it’s what we’ve been called to, and we feel with a lot of people participating we can get there,” Moseley said.

The ultimate goal is to have resilience in the global food supply, and Moseley said the group hopes to “reduce the shout and provide a safe place for people to come to the table and have these kind of discussions.”

“We have to get a deeper level of understanding” he said, later adding, “Today’s challenge in food production is significantly different than the past.”

Kathi Brock, director of strategic partnerships with the American Humane Association, is also taking a balanced approach as she advocates for humane animal treatment to be a component of sustainable production practices.

“If it isn’t going to make sense in a business model, it isn’t going to happen,” she acknowledged.

And Dustin Dixon, vice president of food safety and quality assurance for Bob Evans Farms, said consumers and their wallets will ultimately shape how the food industry behaves, but “transparency is where it all starts.”

“(Customers) have to understand that for ‘this’ you get ‘that,’” he said.

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