WASHINGTON – With a focus on the future of the environment and the prospect of feeding a global population forecast to top 9 billion by the year 2050, the opening general session speaker at the North American Meat Institute’s Annual Meeting and Outlook Conference on Nov. 3 discussed some of the daunting challenges ahead and some reasons for optimism in discovering solutions. Jack Bobo, senior vice president, chief communications officer with Germantown, Md.-based Intrexon Corp. discussed how science and technology and effectively managing the public perception of risk are some of the keys to ensuring a food-secure future.
Intrexon is no stranger to the role of genetic engineering for the agricultural space. The firm recently purchased the company that produced the Arctic Apple, a genetically engineered apple known for its non-browning attributes in addition to owning AquaBounty, which produces a genetically engineered salmon that grows faster using less feed than its traditional counterparts as well as Trans Ova Genetics, specializing in reproductive technologies for cattle and dairy producers.
As the title of his presentation implied (“Can agriculture save the planet before it destroys it?”), Bobo pointed out the purpose of his talk was not to promote genetically enhanced food production, rather to look at some of the environmental realities facing food production companies today and in the next 35 years.
“In many ways, there’s nothing we do that has a bigger impact on the planet than agriculture, and yet there is nothing more critical for our survival,” he said.
The challenge is reducing the negative impacts of agriculture while maintaining and advancing the benefits. Bobo made the point that when it comes to land, there is no shortage as some critics might maintain. Forty percent of all the land that could be used for agriculture is being used today. Cropland used today is the equivalent size of the continent of South America. The amount of pasture land is equivalent to the size of Africa.
Water availability is, however, a challenge of today. Most evidence indicates the rivers and seas of 50 years ago are drying up while climate change due to the ag sector accounts for up to 15 percent of all greenhouse gases; 15 percent comes from deforestation and 80 percent of that is attributed to agriculture.
He points out that in the energy sector, where renewable sources are the buzzwords, for every dollar invested in wind and solar energy generation the return is less than one dollar, making it less efficient than fossil fuels. “But for every dollar invested in agriculture you get $1.43 back everywhere in the world. So you have to wonder, would consumers rather pay more for their energy or less for their food to get a cleaner environment. From what I know of Americans, they’d rather eat their way to a cleaner environment.” So there should be an opportunity for agriculture.
Noting the population growth projections for 2050, Bobo pointed out, “that’s a challenge.” He also says a more current crisis is that 800 million people go to bed hungry each day, and 9 million people are going to die of hunger this year, equal to 25,000 people per day or 1000 people per hour.
“How do we bring that home to people that this is a challenge that’s real; that these are real individuals and that these are not statistics?”
Meanwhile, 60 percent to 70 percent more food is needed by 2050 and it needs to be done using less land, less water, less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.
“So we have to do everything better tomorrow than we’re already doing today and our rivers and lakes are already running dry. “ This is a dilemma because of a dichotomy of views among consumers and producers today: those backing the slow food movement using methods practiced 100 years ago, buying all locally produced sources, which is juxtaposed by the faster-food movement to promote more intensely produced food using high-tech agriculture, making it faster and better than before.
“These two trends are at odds with each other and they’re going to clash unless we find a way for them to work together,” Bobo said.
Comparing the amount of food produced by various countries around the world, Bobo made the point that compared to 1961 the amount of food produced in 2005 by US, China, India and more recently, Brazil is trending upward in terms of more food production. But the same doesn’t hold true for many European countries. Using a chart summarizing global food production and consumption to make his point, Bobo, demonstrated that during the same 1961-2005 timespan, “a lot of European countries are not producing all that much more food than they did back in 1961. They are consuming a lot more food but they’re not producing a lot more food,” he said.
This method of low-production agriculture in many parts of Europe has served to protect its environment, a choice that has negative repercussions for other parts of the world, which are relied upon to export foods to Europe.
“In the next 10 years, Europe will increase its agricultural production by just under 4 percent,” Bobo said. Meanwhile, Brazil will increase its food production by 40 percent, driven by demand in its No. 1 export market, Europe.
“Europe is exporting its environmental footprint for agriculture to arguably the most biodiverse country on the planet. That might not be a good idea,” he said. As long as European countries are able to choose to produce however they want, there are more than enough exporting countries lining up to export their food to fill any void knowing that as a trade partner, they can afford to buy whatever food they want.
In terms of adapting to prepare for the coming needs, Bobo said, “People love innovation almost as much as they despise change,” adding that change to the food people eat is typically met with strong resistance.
“If we don’t change the way we produce our food, everything will change,” he said, and that means innovating to maintaining the quality of life enjoyed by most people today.
Part of effective innovating requires truthful marketing and conveying reality in that messaging. Currently, consumers are largely more skeptical and untrusting about food production. Bobo discussed how food companies should carefully balance the elements of hazard combined with exposure and the amount of resulting risk. Playing into that equation nowadays is the impact of media exposure and the resulting perception of risk.
“We worry about things we hear about,” he said, and that level of worry depends largely on media exposure and specifically social media. For food businesses, getting involved in that dissemination of information requires careful, protracted responses and by the time many players in that segment get involved it’s too late.
“Too often as a government, we’ve not been part of the conversation and too often industry is not a part of the conversation and they just watch it pass them by.”
As innovation and solutions are developed between now and 2050, effectively managing the perception of what are legitimate public health threats is critical and dismissing myths in the social media era can be challenging.
The public often doesn’t know the difference though, between something that is a health scare and something that sounds scary and is actually healthy. That’s a challenge because they are going to worry about the things they are told to worry about by a variety of sources.
Especially when addressing or proposing new ideas for long-term solutions for feeding the world today and in the future, keeping the public informed before it’s too late is beneficial. “We need to be engaged in conversations even when the risk is low and media attention is high.”