What does the future hold for agriculture? A thriving job market, a bowl full of flavored hard-boiled eggs, and a growing need for innovation and communication both inside and outside the agriculture industry, according to a diverse panel of speakers on Capitol Hill for National Ag Day.
To harness that potential, though, farmers, ranchers, and others will need to think ahead to what their operations—and the world—might need in the years to come.
“We’re living in 2015, but we’re thinking in 2050,” said Ronnie D. Green, vice president of the University of Nebraska, who spoke on the “Farm to Fork” panel Tuesday.
Organized and moderated by Sara Wyant of Agri-Pulse, the panel also featured Iowa farmer Bill Horan, egg producer Paul Sauder, Climate Corp. scientist David Fischhoff and U.S. Representative Rodney Davis (R-Ill.).
Here are five key themes that emerged from their wide-ranging discussion.
1. Producers must be thoughtful about food safety and animal welfare issues in this age of social media and liability lawsuits. “You are one egg away from going out of business if you sell an egg with salmonella in it,” cautioned Sauder, who is the president and CEO of Pennsylvania-based Sauder’s Eggs. The company voluntarily adopted practices intended to reduce the risk of food safety issues in eggs years before the FDA did. It is also venturing into new products with a line of flavored hard-boiled eggs.
2. Water—or the lack of it—represents a growing challenge for agriculture around the globe and will require innovative solutions. “One of the statistics we worry a lot about and think a lot about is water … 70 percent of the world’s water today is employed in agriculture. The estimates are that the number will be closer to 90 percent a few decades from now,” said University of Nebraska’s Green.
3. The job market for agriculture grads is booming. Horan told of biotech companies who have started recruiting college juniors for jobs, because all the seniors have already committed to an employer after weighing multiple job offers. “When you hear on the news about all these kids moving back into the basement of their parents, that’s not true in agriculture,” Horan said.
4. Data science moves much faster or than other types of ag science. It might take 10 years to get a new biotech seed to market, according to Fischhoff, but a new tech product might take just two years. The anecdote points to the speed of tech innovation, but it also illustrates a weakness in agricultural research. “There is an underfunding of ag research and investment in ag research across the board,” said Green, who said Brazil and China are spending more on ag research than the U.S. right now. “It’s not only USDA that should be investing in ag research,” he said. “It should be the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy.”
5. Farmers, ranchers and others in agriculture must engage more with the consumer on an emotional level to address those viral messages that aren’t always accurate. “We’ve found that if you react with good science immediately to some of the things that were said, it helps it from catching fire and taking off," Horan said. "The activist community is excellent at taking their thoughts and digesting them down to a bumper sticker—a bumper sticker that sounds reasonable until you start looking at the science and it’s not reasonable at all…. There are a lot of people who make a lot of money scaring people about food." Horan found an ally in Green, who said farmers, ranchers, and others involved in food production need to tell their story of sustainability and stewardship. "We have got to take back that environmental green mantle which has been taken away," Green said.