The food conversation is maturing, with more people realizing that technology is necessary to preserve the planet.
Last week’s conference, “Future of Food: Food Security in the 21st Century,” hosted by the left-leaning Washington Post, was significant in what it was not—a diatribe against technology- driven agriculture and commercial-scale dairy production.
At last year’s conference, England’s Prince Charles was the main event. The prince who might never be king is a huge, if not radical, proponent of organic food production. His mother’s herd of Guernseys, on the outskirts of London, is housed, bred and managed much like it was in Edwardian times a century ago. (I know--I’ve been there).
In contrast, the debate last Wednesday (if you can even call it a debate) leaned heavily toward reliance on commercial agriculture, calls for more research and development, and third-world countries doing what they can to increase productivity. “The reality is we need both. It’s not a question of organic or conventional, technology or no technology, big or small. It needs to be inclusive. We need organic and conventional, big and small producers,” says Chris Policinski, president of Land O’Lakes Cooperative.
The conference was a tribute to the editors of Washington Post Live and Slate.com, who organized, hosted and moderated the event. The event was sponsored by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
More than 300 on-site participants and untold more at their computer screens nationwide watched the live-streamed event from the first-floor conference room of the Washington Post five blocks from the White House.
At issue: How to feed an expected 9 billion people by the year 2050 in a world that already struggles to feed the current 7 billion. “It’s really very simple. In the next 40 years, we will have to produce as much food in the world as we have in the last 8,000,” says Jason Clay, senior vice president of the World Wildlife Fund.
Clay gave science and technology instant credibility. He realizes technology is and will be needed to feed today’s masses and the two billion more mouths planning to populate this earth by 2050. That’s the equivalent, he says, of trying to feed the equivalent of the population of nearly two more Chinas by 2050. And therein lies the crux of the matter.
“I think you can produce food in cities—vegetables, fruit, even livestock and fish—but not calories. You need land to grow corn and wheat and rice, and you have to be realistic about what the science is,” says Clay.
Driving all of this was the recognition that the world is already using most of its arable land, and will only be able to expand that land base by 10% without cutting down even more forests, jeopardizing global biodiversity and accelerating even faster climate change.
Credit for changing the tone of the conversation rightly must go to Tom Gallagher, CEO of Dairy Management, Inc., and the Innovation Center. Gallagher and other dairy leaders at DMI recognize that in order to bring rationality to the food debate, they must have credible third-party allies such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Dairy must then back up its message with sound science and walk-the-talk, on-farm dairy practices. “We have to wrap dairy in with credible third parties to help us tell our story, and we have to build credibility that we’re doing things right on the farm,” says Gallagher.
The Washington Post Live conference is a sign that the food conversation is maturing, says Policinski. Non-governmental organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund are realizing that technology must be a big part of the solution to preserve the planet.
The Innovation Center is planning four more events yet this year (Denver, Burlington, Vt., Phoenix and Chicago) to reinforce the message of last week’s conference. Following that, DMI plans to take a breath and assess future priorities. “We need to match the key stories consumers are interested in with current dairy practices, and have the science to back up our message,” says Gallagher.
Last week’s Future of Food event was good news for the dairy industry. Like LOL’s Policinski says, it was a mature, adult conversation. Let’s hope it continues.
More information on the Future of Food Conference can be found here