The right to farm and feed the world

The world’s demand for food and food-based products is set to double – if not triple – by 2050 and farmers must speak up for their right to meet that demand using conventional farming methods combined with new technologies.

If they don’t, a US researcher told delegates at the Beef Industry Convention in London ON recently, we will experience higher food prices, destroy sensitive ecosystems as they’re pressed into food production and hinder the development of new, “green” energy sources like ethanol.

“Our world food and fuel needs already exceed our farm resource capacity and it will only get worse as the global population increases,” said Alex Avery, Director of research and education at the Centre for Global Food Issues in Virginia. “Farmers need to speak up about the need to use new agricultural technologies to boost production or we won’t be able to keep up.”

Not only is the global population continuing to grow, but people around the world are also gaining affluence faster than at any time in our history. And when a population becomes richer, people’s appetites and attitudes change, Avery said. For example, diets change to include more meat, more processed foods and more fresh fruits and vegetables.

This means food staples are in growing demand for people and for animals – but also for the emerging bio-economy.

Farmers will have to produce twice or three times as many crops by 2050 or 2060 than they do now – and will have to do that every year to keep up to this growing demand. However, there’s little new farmland that can be brought into production in the world without destroying natural habitats, which means farmers must resort to new technologies to make the land they do have produce more.

“We can either take more land from nature, or we can increase our productivity on the land we already have in agricultural production,” stated Avery. “If we were still producing at 1960s yields to meet today’s demand, we’d need an additional 15 – 20 million acres of farmland. That’s how much wildlife habitat we’ve preserved by using modern farming methods.”

The popularity of organic food has been increasingly spreading from niche markets into the mainstream. And that, argued Avery, is a problem.Organics can not feed the world as their production yields can not keep up with the growing global demand.

“The organic ideas that consumers are buying into are part of the organic utopian myth,” he said. “And if farmers don’t counter these perceptions, they’ll become ingrained in collective societal thinking.”

Popular consumer wisdom surrounding organics is based on untruths or unproven assertions, he said, citing a 2006 study that still shows no proven nutritional advantage to organically produced foods. There is also no credence to the idea that organic food is safer because no pesticides are used to produce it.

In fact, organic farmers do use pesticides, he said, they are just naturally-occurring instead of synthetic products. As well, food testing and residue detecting capabilities are so sophisticated now that they are picking up traces as minute as one part per billion, which is as small as one second in 32,000 years.

Biotechnology and other farming technologies like crop protection let farmers be more sustainable. It is biotechnology, for example, that allows farmers to plant crops in unsuitable soils or grow plants that are more resistant to drought and pests, all benefits that average consumers are not aware of.

“Farmers need to start speaking up on this. We haven’t been engaging in the fight and if we don’t, it may one day be too late,” he summarized, adding that it will be the court of public opinion that will determine what farmers can grow and how they can grow it.

Alex Avery was a speaker at the 2009 Beef Industry Convention in London ON. I attended the event courtesy of the Ontario Cattle Feeders’ Association.

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