"Our 21st century challenge to raise enough food to feed a growing global population is complex—we must increase food production, while decreasing the environmental footprint of agriculture,” writes The Atlantic, a publication that teamed up with the beef checkoff program to sponsor a recent panel discussion of experts that addressed that issue.
"Feeding Future Generations: Supporting Sustainable Global Food Production" was the theme of the Washington, D.C., event that featured Dan Glickman, former USDA Secretary; Tony Hall, executive director for The Alliance To End Hunger; Suzy Friedman, deputy director of the Environmental Defense Fund; and Steve Foglesong, owner of Black Gold Ranch and past president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA).
Panelists were asked: As the population continues to rapidly expand, how can the food industry, including the beef industry, continue to provide safe, high-quality and nutritious foods in a way that does not strain our natural resources?
Here are their responses:
Glickman stated, “In parts of Africa and the developing world, there have been droughts and famines. We have a humanitarian obligation, and it’s our heart and soul in America to worry about and feed other parts of the world, especially those regions that are particularly struggling, such as Africa. In our own country, we have almost 45 million Americans on food stamps right now. This is something Congress is going to have to deal with. How can we make cuts that will hurt traditional farm programs the least?
“The great strength of American agriculture has been on our research, which has helped increase technology to feed the world. Right now, our budget, in real terms, is heading toward the basement. If we look at the long-term future of feeding ourselves and the world, we don’t want to be presiding over a declining research budget on agriculture. There is a lot of good work being done right now, but not necessarily on long-term feeding the world, with less water, less available soil and a growing, hungry world. We have to find ways to produce more on less, and that’s why a research budget is so important.
“We have to recognize that agriculture is somewhat unique because no other industry is so weather-dependent. Prices have gone up a few years rather significantly, but just last week, corn has gone down. We will always need some protection to protect against natural or political disasters. Rather then looking at it as an income transfer from the government to ranchers, subsidy programs should based on risk management and conserving our natural resources. We should not be paying subsidies according to size; it encourages consolidation. We need to readjust our payments to reach and help the average-sized farms.”
Hall responded, “Global hunger kills more people then AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined; 25,000 people will die of hunger and hunger-related diseases today. More than one billion people are malnourished around the world, with half of our population living on less than $2/day. In the U.S. there are almost 50 million people going to bed hungry at night. This is the problem. This is the picture, and it looks bad. But, the good news is that there have been a lot of breakthroughs. We need more development and more agriculture. We must invest in agriculture. It takes leadership and it takes somebody that people believe in. Studies must be done to find real solutions to our problems.”
Friedman added, “We need to look at ways that are sustainable and economical. The planet that could soon be supporting up to 10 billion human beings will look different than when we had 2 million peasants in our past. We need to look at innovative approaches to meet food demands without destroying our resources. What are the different ways to manage inputs while managing climate change impacts? This needs to be economical and logistical. While it’s nice to be nostalgic about how things were 50 years ago, that model isn’t sustainable today. We must look at things realistically. We can’t put unrealistic demands on farmers that make them lose money, or they won’t be around for very long to keep raising us food.”
Foglesong said, “The environment is a top priority to us ranchers. We are the original environmentalists. Our ranch holds 10 different families, and we certainly aren’t going to be doing anything to harm our environment. Ultimately, we can’t go organic and get the job done; we wouldn’t be able to raise enough food. If we are going to raise twice as much food on this planet to feed a growing population, we have to be given the freedom to really get after it. We have to produce at maximum efficiency because we continue to be behind. When you look at the cattle industry, we have decreased our carbon footprint by 40% but are producing more beef to feed the planet. Today’s U.S. cowherd is the smallest it’s been since the 1950s, but we can now raise a larger animal on less feed because of improved genetics, faster growth rates and more efficient use of feed. Our number-one goal is to provide the safest food supply in the world. Today’s cattle are raised on grass and finished on grain. Cattle are still foragers, but they are finished on grain because that’s what our customer demands, and that’s the most efficient way to get the beef to market.”
Feeding future generations in a model that is sustainable and economical is a huge, looming issue, but U.S. food producers are certainly up to the challenge. And, bringing awareness to the topic of food security is an important conversation for producers and consumers to have together in order to find workable solutions.
Are you helping spread the message about the beef industry’s role and record of stewardship in feeding the world? How do you reach out to those off the farm? Share your thoughts below.