Opinion: By Charlie Arnot, chief executive of the Centre for Food Integrity in the United States*
There is a growing gap between farmers and consumers. It was a recurring theme in a dozen meetings I had with hundreds of agricultural leaders in Australia recently and mirrors what is happening in the US.
Consumers such as Voiceless founder Brian Sherman have expressed their concerns about how food is produced, in newspapers and other media.
The author and Voiceless patron J.M. Coetzee has even called for radical changes to the food system. But they risk dangerous unintended consequences.
In fact, placing restrictions on the food system that inhibit farmers' ability to produce more food with fewer resources will limit the availability of healthy, affordable food choices for all of us.
Unfortunately the greatest impact will be on those who can least afford it.
In Australia and the US, the food debate often pits city dwellers against rural neighbours. Today's consumers are generationally and geographically removed from agriculture and any time there is a gap between performance and expectations there is the potential for misunderstanding and conflict.
But it's time to reject this brand of culinary colonialism, which does little more than inflame and alienate consumers with a legitimate interest in farming and food.
The agricultural sector can and should do a better job of assuring consumers that even though farming systems have changed, most farmers' commitment to responsible food production has not. We should increase the transparency of today's farming.
But if farmers were forced to rely on the food production methods of the 1950s, as some are suggesting, tens of thousands of Australians would go hungry each day. In fact, limiting the ability of agriculture to continue to innovate and improve productivity will also increase the cost of food, limit food availability and bring marginal land into production, risking serious environmental degradation.
To feed a global population expected to exceed 9 billion people by 2050 – 2 billion more than today – technology will need to continue to play a vital role. In fact, projections from the United Nations, accounting for increased wealth throughout the developing world, say we will need to double food production by mid-century to meet those needs.
According to Norman Borlaug, the father of the green revolution, that means we have to produce more food before the end of this century than the previous 10,000 years combined.
The only way we can do so is through the responsible use of technology, the same way agriculture has increased production to serve the needs of growing populations around the world since 1950.
That is why organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund are now active proponents for more intensive agriculture.
Dr Jason Clay, the senior vice-president of market transformation at WWF, says we need to double the number of calories produced on the land presently in use by 2050 if we want to preserve our ecosystem and biodiversity. We will put the environment at risk if we choose to reject systems that allow us to produce more food using fewer natural resources.
It is a sobering reality. While doubling our productivity, we also need to freeze our environmental footprint, in effect doubling what we get from every drop of water, from every metre of land and every gram of fertiliser.
Farmers across the developed world have been doing their part to meet this challenge. An analysis of data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service shows that farm and ranch productivity in the US has increased dramatically since 1950 while the use of resources required for production has declined markedly. Farmers in 2008 produced 262 percent more food with 2 percent fewer inputs, compared with 1950.
Those of us fortunate enough to live in affluent societies should celebrate the vast array of food available to us. We have the option of buying conventional, local or organic food and those of us with access to land can enjoy the harvest of our own garden.
But it is overly simplistic to assert that a certain type or size of farm or food production system is inherently better than another, because safe, nutritious, and affordable food is produced in a variety of ways.
To meet the needs of a growing population, we need to support continued innovation, responsible production, processing and distribution – because that is the real ethical choice for people, animals and the planet.
- * Charlie Arnot is the chief executive officer of the Centre for Food Integrity based in Missouri in the US. The CFI is a national non-profit organisation dedicated to building consumer trust and confidence in today's food systems. The CFI’s work has attracted increasing attention in Australia because of its success in building consumer understanding of the farm sector while also highlighting environmental, productivity and food safety gains achieved by today's farming enterprises. Mr Arnot visited Australia last year on a series of speaking engagements with the Australasia Pacific Extension Network and the Agribusiness Association of Australia. He is due back in Australia in February to talk to dairy farmers.