Farmers need to help the public overcome fears of new farming technology
Meeting the food needs of a growing world population hinges on farmers spreading the word that modern farming methods are sustainable and safe. That was the message delivered by Marshall Matz, a longtime advocate for improving food and nutrition around world, at the 2012 Farm Journal Forum.
"We all know the numbers," Matz says. "The world's population is at 7 billion and in a few short years will reach 9 billion. Global food security is not just a moral imperative; it is also a matter of national security and economic security. We can meet this challenge, but only if we follow sound science."
For example, increasing agricultural production in Africa isn't just the key to economic security in that continent, Matz says. It's also the key to global food security. "Africa has 60% of the world's under-utilized agricultural land," he says. "That statistic has grabbed my attention. It is stunning."
Matz represents the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, chaired by Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the United Nations. African scientists routinely ask him about what is going on in the U.S. "They say, 'We are totally organic in Africa and we are starving. Can't you explain that to America?'"
Matz acknowledges that as counsel to the Senate Ag Committee in the 1970s, he was skeptical of biotechnology. At that time, it stood for the maximum use of fertilizer and pesticides. Today, he says, "it has the exact opposition implication. It means using GPS to reduce inputs; it means seeds that use less water, fewer nutrients and fewer pesticides. Yet, that is not understood by the public or key public opinion makers or editorial writers."
"My biggest concern, as someone who supports agriculture and global food security, is that Americans do not understand modern agriculture is sustainable and good for the environment."
Matz implored the audience of farmers and policy advocates to better explain modern agriculture and green biotechnology to the public. That includes getting scientists to speak out more boldly.
Matz took aim at Michael Pollan and his book "In Defense of Food", in which he wrote: "I am advising you to reject the advice of science." Matz says Pollan's position is "socially irresponsible. How can you possibly reject science and feed the planet? It can't be done."
Americans need to understand, Matz says, that most of their food--95%--comes through production farming. Organic and local production are important developments, but they provide only 5% of the country's food supply. "It's just not an equal split."
Matz emphasized that most Americans don't relate to a rural America, "except when they want to vacation in one of our wonderful national parks. It is rural America that produces our food, our energy and, in great part, our military recruits and our value system."
He says that the agricultural community needs to get out of its silo and reach out broadly because "we no longer live in a world where educating the few opinion makers at the top is enough. You must undertake the hard work of educating the public and the consumers of food, your customer." If you educate consumers, he says, Washington leaders will follow.
Specifically, the lobbyist recommends that the ag community in its political discourse highlight its contribution to jobs and the economy, the biggest hot buttons in the nation's Capitol these days. He also emphasized that agriculture and global food security are "very high" priorities for the Obama administration.
He recommends the following approaches to ramping up the government's commitment to global food security:
- Commitment to sound science in the regulatory process
- Expanded agricultural research
- Ramped-up development of new technology, including green biotechnology
- Improved coordination between countries