Opinions & Sacred Cows: Feeding the world with technology

By Ron Goble, Editor, Western DairyBusiness

The world population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050! That’s up from 6.5 billion people by today’s count. “We are going to become a more hungry world for animal protein and feed grains,” says Brian Rittgers, director of Global Field Management Development for Elanco. Rittgers was a keynote speaker at Dairy Profit Seminars during World Ag Expo recently. His message was focused on food economics and consumer choice.

He stressed how the world would need to depend on technology in order to be able to feed the world safely, sustainably and economically. The word “choice” is critical. And if we are going to have the choice around the kinds of foods we are able to consume and the technology we are able to use in production agriculture, we’ve got to fight for, and recognize that “choice” is important.

The 50 / 100 / 70 phenomenon

By the year 2050, the world will require 100% more food, and 70% of this food must come from our efficiency-improving technology, Rittgers said. “We don’t have more land. We don’t have more natural resources. We don’t have more land or water. So we will have to have available safe technology if we expect to feed the world.

The developed world (North America, Europe and Japan) has a very small proportion of its total population is made up of young people. The demographics are just the opposite in developing nations. And as their economies expand the people get more hungry for more protein (meat, milk and eggs) – not more rice or wheat.

Rittgers emphasized that as the population grows in these countries, access to safe, proven technologies will protect the basic moral right of people to have enough food, enough choices, and do it sustainably.

He talked about food insecurity. One in six people in the world goes hungry in 2010. Between 2008-2010, an estimated 18.2 million people around the world died from malnutrition. In America, food insecurity reaches 14.6% of U.S. families in 2008 (highest number since record-keeping began). In 2008-09, food assistance in Indiana increased by 38%. One in six Indiana families in ‘09 relied on a food bank.

In China, the Premier, Wen Jiabao, said he “had a dream to provide every Chinese, especially children, sufficient milk each day.” He wanted to increase the daily intake of milk from 100 grms per day to 300 grms per day. Compare that to 706 grms per day for those in the U.S. That means in a country like China, they would have to go from 18 million to 36 million dairy cows.

In India, they currently spend 50% of their income on food; about the same ad the U.S. 100 years ago. Secretary of Agriculture for India said that was not acceptable going forward. And they didn’t want to be dependent on countries like the U.S. to feed them. They see a big part of the answer as being technology.

In 27 studies in 26 countries, from 2001-2010, some 97,000 consumers were surveyed. A solid 95% of food buyers said their top three requirements were affordability, nutrition and taste. Lifestyle buyers at 4%, wanted luxury/gourmet foods, organic, local, grow food in their own gardens, or make choices based on their religious preferences. A 1% fringe who made decisions based on food bans, restrictions, political proposition, or overall activism. So you have 99% of consumers out there open to the use of technology.

The late Norman Borlaug said the world has the safe technology either available or well advanced in the research pipeline to feed a population of 10 billion people. However, the more pertinent question is, will farmers and ranchers be allowed to use this new technology? Will regulators, will people who have an impact on the food system, give you the opportunity to use the technology available today and available in the future?

Rittgers cited the United Kingdom decision in the 1990s to restrict how animal agriculture was implemented and executed and what tools were available. “There is a law of unintended consequences that comes with these types of decisions to not allow technology. For the first time in their history, the U.K. was a net importer of food. They could no longer produce enough food to feed themselves,” said Rittgers. “You talk about global security and I don’t think any country wants to be in that situation – relying on other countries to feed them.

Since U.K. restrictions enacted in 1990s:

• U.K. is now a net food importer

-Value of U.K. food imports (2007): 133% higher vs. exports

-Meat imports: 389% higher vs. exports

-Dairy imports: 132% higher vs. exports

-Farm incomes down 71% (‘95-’01)

• Without government subsidies:

-Incomes negative in 7 of 11 years

• U.K. lost 60,000 farmers/farm workers (’98-’01)

• Lost 10’s of millions of lbs. of meat due to animal disease

Rittgers pointed out that “consumers are fed a steady stream of information by the popular press that most often doesn’t accurately tell our story about what we do, and how we do it, in agriculture as it relates to producing food.”

“We must refine our story, tell our story and collectively get the story right,” Rittgers said. “Decisions about agriculture are driven often by misinformation, opinion, emotion, and even nostalgia about what production agriculture used to be. We need to counter that with accurate information to ensure decisions are made about ag practices based on sound science and accurate data.”

Rittgers stressed that U.S. agriculture has a tremendous story to tell about sustainability. Efficiency-enhancing technologies can greatly reduce resource usage on the farm. “If you look at water use, we’ve reduced water use in beef production by 14% per pound since 1977. If you look at dairy, a gallon of milk uses 65% less water today than it did in 1944 to produce a gallon of milk. How about land use? We are using 34% less land per lb. of beef than in 1977 and 90% less land per gallon of milk than in 1944. That’s a tremendous sustainability message to tell,” Rittgers declared.

“It’s a time for action as it relates to the three moral choices mentioned earlier – basic moral right to have enough food, consumer choice and sustainability.”

Rittgers 7 reasons to be hopeful:

• We see the global 50-100-70% phenomena is playing out in the world today. We see it happening.

• The 99% that want: nutrition, affordability, taste, some luxury choices! We cannot let the 1%, who do it based on activism, restrict the use of technology for the rest of consumers.

• Food Chain 500 influence: identifying reachable and influential leaders who have the power to shape consumer choices.

• Retailers’ positive decisions (in more than 20 instances in the last 12 months) to allow technologies used in production agriculture to be used and those products marketed through their retail stores.

• Recessionary effect – increasing need for affordability in food, not just in the U.S., but around the world.

• Sustainability/Environmental movements are real. Retailers all want to make sustainability part of their message.

• Regulatory body – FDA – consistency, record innovation, alignment on such things as antibiotics, that we believe will make sure that we have access to antibiotic technology in the future. and that we have the public’s confidence that we are using those technologies properly.

“The good news is, there is a lot more technology coming.

Safe, affordable, abundant food…Making it a reality:

~ Personalize the issue – find your voice and talk about who you do. Tell your story.

~ Engage the food chain – talk to your local grocery store owner/manager about why they don’t allow certain technologies

~ Support the 99% – go to www.plentyto thinkabout.org and share your thoughts, opinions and concerns.

Rittgers’ message is something we need to take seriously and then take action.

Have an opinion or response? E-mail Ron Goble, associate publisher/editor, Western DairyBusiness at: rgoble@dairybusiness.com