The Food Dialogues: Experts weigh in on the challenges of feeding a growing population
According to a study conducted by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) and shared during The Food Dialogues, an event that happened in townhall meetings across the country on Sept. 22 aimed at answering questions about agriculture, “Ninety-three (93) percent care some or a lot about food pricing. Fifty-four (54) percent say they are dissatisfied with how farmers and ranchers are addressing food prices. Eighty (80) percent of consumers care about what it takes to feed a growing population.”
The Newseum in Washington, DC was the second panel featured that day during the discussions with Claire Shipman, ABC News, serving as the emcee, and Phil Lempert, food trends analyst and editor, The Lempert Report/Supermarket Guru, working as the moderator. A guest speaker was USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, and panelists included: Tres Bailey, director of Agriculture and Food, Walmart; Kathi Brock, director of Strategic Partnerships American Humane Association; Frank DiPasquale, CEO, School Nutrition Association; Bob Stallman, Texas farmer/rancher, president American Farm Bureau Federation and chairman, USFRA; Jon Scholl, Illinois corn and soybean farmer and president American Farmland Trust; Dan Glickman, senior fellow Bipartisan Policy Center and former USDA secretary; and Jason Clay, senior vice president Market Transformation, World Wildlife Fund.
The question this panel was challenged to answer was, “If we look at a growing world-wide population, how will we feed the world?”
“We live in a global economy, and this forum allows us to answer the questions on sustainability and if our planet will support current food production systems,” kicked off Clay. “There’s no silver bullet. We have to produce more with less. We have to intensify production. If we want to have wetlands, forestland and natural areas, we have to double up our efforts in efficiency. What the world is looking for from the U.S. is innovation. Is our current structure going to lead to innovation globally? Do subsidies contribute to that?”
Brock chimed in with, “How we raise our animals is a social issue, too, and our consumers need to expect that their demands will cost more. We are not just providing a meal, but we are also matching their social expectations, and that’s going to cost.”
“A lot of the debate right now focuses in on agriculture technology,” said Stallman. “In addition to consumer expectations, we have to talk about the reality in the market place and supporting the production of the foods that will be needed in the upcoming decades. Farmers are having a hard time making ends meet.”
Scholl added, “We have lost 23 million acres in last 25 years of farmland, and a lot of this isn’t just marginal ground; it’s prime ground going to condos and development. We have to pay attention to some things that, quite frankly, we have taken for granted in the past. We have to protect the land and the water. We have to look at policy issues. I think agriculture is going to look a lot different down the road, and we are going to have to look at things in a new way.”
“Childhood obesity is a huge problem, and we have dietary requirements that are changing and evolving,” said DiPasquale. “It’s not just about feeding people; it’s about health and nutrition. Thirty-one million are a part of school lunch program, and another 11 million are a part of the breakfast program.”
Bailey noted, “Consumers are incredibly concerned with food, and our own customer-base shows that, as well. Yet, consumers will never compromise on food safety, healthfulness or ethics. At Walmart, we see ourselves as a convener, where we can bring together the best of the best to meet the challenges and demands of our consumers and maintain a level of safety and healthfulness of the foods on our shelves. We have pushed to decrease added sugars and sodium in our foods. We are adding icons on our packaging to assist them in making choices. Finally, we are working on reducing prices, too.”
“Congress is exploring how to deal with the deficit,” said Glickman. “No longer will Uncle Sam be paying farmers the same way they used to, but I think we are going to be entering a period of high prices for producers, so they may not miss those government payments. It is disgraceful how we have let our research budget fall in recent years. The only way we can feed a hungry world in a sustainable way while increasing yields is to have an effective research budget. Fifty years ago in the Green Revolution, we did this, but it has since stopped. Our research in agriculture is astonishingly low, which needs to be turned around. We need to redirect our funds to focus on that and feed the world in the future.”
“I think we need to do a better job to make sure folks are sitting down at the table to discuss proposals and how those regulations might impact their businesses, and if appropriate, make adjustments to those rules,” said Vilsack. “I think we have had too much adversarial confrontation in this country, especially when it comes to food production. We need to come together and do what’s best for our kids. We don’t have the luxury of fighting amongst ourselves anymore.”
editor’s note: these highlights are just snippets of a four-part discussion panel that happened across the country as a part of the food dialogues. to view more or join the ongoing discussion, visit http://www.fooddialogues.com/gather/live-event/.
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