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Ag Issues Forum touches on future of feeding a growing world

By Jennifer M. Latzke

Meeting the challenges and opportunities of a growing and hungry world population in these coming decades will require innovations, and Bayer CropScience wants to help farmers communicate the exciting opportunities of agriculture to accomplish that, said David Hollinrake, vice president Agricultural Commercial Operations Marketing, Bayer CropScience.

Hollinrake opened the 2013 Bayer CropScience Ag Issues Forum, held in Kissimmee, Fla., just prior to Commodity Classic. The Ag Issues Forum is a platform for media and industry to discuss those issues that will affect agriculture not just in the United States, but also around the globe.

“There are one billion people on the planet today that are underfed,” Hollinrake said. “Conversely, there are one billion people who are overfed. And, in the next 30 years, there will be another 2 billion more mouths to feed. And frankly, they want to eat like us.” Farmers of the future will need to find innovative ways of growing more food on limited land and with limited resources and inputs, while dealing with regulatory hurdles, traceability and sustainability definitions, and consolidation and labor squeezes.

The forum brought together leaders from across the food and fiber industry to talk about sustainability, engaging consumers, the future of farming, and more.

Rich Kottmeyer, senior executive and Global Agriculture and Food Production Leader at Accenture, gave a futuristic perspective of how decisions today will affect the food industry of 2025.

Kottmeyer discussed how as we improve the diets of the middle class, we still need to do something to drive down the price of food so that poor can afford quality food. One way would be to improve infrastructure to make food more easily available to consumers.

“Just growing a crop doesn’t feed anyone,” Kottmeyer said. “It needs to be transported and processed.

“Another billion people means you have to build infrastructure,” he added. “I like to say, a computer still can’t move a barge of grain.”

Consumers of the future will have accepted biotechnology, but only if agriculture can talk to them about the reality, the facts of biotechnology and take away the emotions out of the argument, Kottmeyer said. “They don’t understand that the bygone era of farming came at a huge cost, to real people,” he said. “Food was just too darn expensive. It came at a sustainability cost.”

That definition of sustainability will change in the future, too. Kottmeyer said that in the future, it won’t just mean how the crop is grown, but it will be tied to social justice. “It will not be sustainable to have hunger,” he said. “It won’t be sustainable to hold someone back from getting into the middle class. The only way is to get consumers to realize that sustainability isn’t about what you put in your body, or what you grow, or what farmers market you shop at. But it’s about empowering or disempowering hundreds of smaller landowners in some place like China.”

Defining “sustainability” was the key topic of the next two speakers on the line-up. Rob Kaplan, senior manager of Sustainability for Walmart Stores, and Rick Tolman, CEO of the National Corn Growers Association, spoke about what the term means for both of their organizations, both of which are members of the alliance Field to Market.

Kaplan explained that for Walmart, sustainability means finding opportunities for efficiency and to better manage risk. “Carbon footprint is a good metric, but it’s only one part,” he said. “Sustainability for us is a journey, not a destination. We will never have a 100 percent sustainable product. It’s a moving target and we can only continuously improve every step of the way.”

For Tolman and NCGA, the definition is about meeting today’s needs while preserving the ability for future generations to better meet their needs. “I think of it as a bank account,” he said. “You put the principle in and you live off the interest.

“In general society, though, the term tends to be exclusionary,” he added. “It ruffles me when I hear people say that agriculture, that corn production is not sustainable. There are many ways to meet the goal, but precluding certain processes and certain ways isn’t the answer.”

For Walmart, corn is king because it can be found in nearly all of its food products in some form or another. “We don’t have commodity corn on the shelf, but it’s in our products,” Kaplan said. Walmart customers care about sustainability, but not enough to make a decision in the time they typically spend on choosing products. “We give them confidence that whatever product they pick will meet their needs of sustainability,” he said. “Walmart believes in consumer choice. We don’t believe that our customers should have to choose between sustainability and affordability, or safety and affordability, or healthy and affordability.” Instead, they put the products on the shelves and let consumers vote with their purchases.

Connecting with consumers will be even more vital in the future of the agricultural industry, and the next two speakers, Michele Payn-Knoper, of Cause Matters Corp., and Lorna Christie, executive vice president and COO of the Produce Marketing Association, discussed how to do that.

“We can’t lead with science anymore,” Payn-Knoper said. “I’m a huge proponent of science, but ag fails time after time when we lead with science and research instead of connecting as human beings. We have incredible connections to make at the center of the plate if we choose to.”

Christie encouraged farmers to take back ag’s brand.

“We spent a lot of time over the last 20 or 30 years building a supply chain that is the best in the world,” she said. “We used science and technology to do more with less. But did we pass the consumer headed in the other direction?” The disconnect between consumer perceptions and producer realities is where agriculture must focus its communications.

“June Cleaver ain’t shopping anymore,” Christie said. She might have been the standard reference mom of the 1960s, but she’s not the standard today. “She got her information from Ward, Walter Kronkite and the daily news. Her world was smaller than it is today. Her input and information was smaller than it is today. If she wanted fresh fruits and vegetables she went down the street or a kindly gentleman delivered to her door.”

June Cleaver didn’t have an iPhone, she added. “She couldn’t look at a barcode and say exactly where that product came from on the farm.” Today’s consumer is a channel-surfing, Internet-using, distrustful, price-conscious consumer and she’s in charge of our future, Christie added.

“If she’s worried about us, then the government is worried about us, and our buyers are worried about us and we should be worried about protecting our relationship,” Christie said. “She’s a ‘glocal,’ a global consumer who is connected by the Internet.” This access to information should concern agriculture because we don’t know whom she’s connecting with who is defining her perception of our industry, she added.

“There’s a battle of production methods,” she said. “By the year 2050, it’s going to take all types of agriculture to feed the world. Yet, we see this infighting between conventional versus organic versus biotech. It’s time to stop those arguments and those debates and realize we’re in this together.”

Christie said if agriculture is going to meet the challenges of tomorrow’s demands, then farmers and industry need to start reconnecting with consumers using messages of what we do on the farm, how we do it and most of all, why we do it.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or jlatzke@hpj.com.

Date: 4/8/2013

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