Why US farmers should get out — now
March 31, 2017
Most farmers I know didn't pursue their passion for raising food to hone their public relations skills.
In fact, by nature, most are quite humble, hardworking and, no matter what size of farm or type of production, spend their waking hours focused on producing safe, affordable food in a way that preserves and improves the land that the vast majority of them hope to pass on to their children.
Yet, in an environment where public skepticism about food production has reached a fever pitch, particularly when it comes to the acceptance of new on-farm technologies, the time is right for more farmers and ranchers to get out of their comfort zones and engage with the public. That includes engaging with those who influence the laws and regulations that govern food production — and who must understand the ramifications to a rapidly growing population and our environment if ag innovation is stifled.
In fact, new U.S. trust research from The Center for Food Integrity shows an overwhelming majority wants to hear from the folks who produce their food. Eighty percent expressed a strong desire to learn more about how food is produced and where it comes from.
This high level of curiosity isn't surprising, since most people don't recognize farming today. It's a golden opportunity for everyone in agriculture to "get out" and have meaningful conversations, sharing their values — in person and online — regarding food production to help earn trust in biotechnology and a multitude of other innovations that have allowed farmers to do more with less.
Genetically modified and hybrid seeds, minimum-tillage planting and other advances help crop farmers increase yields while using less land, energy and irrigated water — reducing greenhouse gas emissions and soil erosion. Improved genetics, nutrition, housing and animal health products have resulted in more productive livestock and healthier meat, milk and eggs. New gene editing technology holds the potential to reduce suffering and improve productivity.
These are just a few examples of the vast array of technological advancements that the food system has adopted over the last several decades.
Consider that in 1950, the U.S. population was 154 million and one farmer produced enough in a year to feed 30 people. We've more than doubled the population and, thanks to technology, one farmer today produces enough to feed 155 people.
If the level of productivity had stalled in the 50s, there would be no food for the nine most populous states in America.
Using technology of the 1960s would require 78 million more hens to produce the same amount of eggs that we do today. Farmers today produce 69 percent more wheat on 6 percent fewer acres. One cow produces as much milk as five cows did in 1944, and the carbon footprint of a gallon of milk has decreased 63 percent since the same year. These changes are the direct result of technology.
Advances made during the "Green Revolution" in the mid-1900s paved the way for global agricultural productivity increases — and are credited with saving the lives of a billion people.
We need another "Green Revolution." We are adding 6.8 million people to the planet every month — the combined populations of Los Angeles and Chicago. Global estimates point to the need to dramatically increase food production by mid-century. That won't happen without using technology to increase productivity while improving sustainability.
But, that message alone won't generate support for ag innovation.
Many people are uncomfortable with the size and scale of today's farms. A "big is bad" mindset prevails — that large farms put profits ahead of public interest. What will ease their minds and earn trust, according to CFI's trust research, is knowing that farmers share their values when it comes to access to safe, healthy and affordable food, the highest standards of animal care and protecting the environment.
In fact, the research shows that communicating with shared values is three-to-five times more important to building trust than simply providing information or demonstrating expertise.
Now is the time for agriculture to engage in these important, and sometimes difficult, conversations.
Everyone in the food chain — especially farmers and ranchers — need to make a long-term, concerted effort to talk about how technology and innovation benefit us all. Embracing technology to feed a rapidly growing global population and protect our environment for generations to come is an ethical and moral imperative.
A summary of the latest CFI trust research is available at http://www.foodintegrity.org. ❖
— Arnot is the CEO of The Center for Food Integrity, a not-for-profit organization that helps today's food system earn consumer trust.