WITH 3 billion more people coming to dinner in 40 years, the rate of world population growth is a large driver for change.
Presently, everything is changing at a rate that is not easy to comprehend, according to Dr. Marty Matlock, executive director of the Office of Sustainability and professor of biological and agricultural engineering at the University of Arkansas.
"What we do in the next 10 years will shape Earth and humanity for the next 100 years," Matlock told the National Institute for Animal Agriculture Annual Conference.
The key to feeding more mouths worldwide is sustainability, yet sustainability is not just about the environment but also about people and profit (Figure). Sustaining natural resources is necessary not only to make the planet livable but also to create a profitable enterprise system.
On the whole, the agriculture industry understands that production levels must be increased — through new technologies — to feed the climbing future population.
Matlock said sustainability should be at the core of change, but as an industry, agriculture is conflicted about sustainability, which ultimately results in creating perplexity for consumers.
"The choir (agriculture) needs practice; right now, we are singing out of tune," Matlock said. "The choir needs to have a language with which to speak about these things we call sustainable agriculture."
The message about sustainability must be communicated beyond the industry; it must be clear and supported by quantified measurements of sustainability that can build consumer trust in new technologies.
As underscored by Jason Clay, senior vice president of corporate affairs for the World Wildlife Fund, there are both persistent issues and important issues in sustainability. The persistent issues are locally grown crops, genetically modified organisms, organic crops and natural, which often overshadow the important issues of water use efficiency, soil erosion, soil organic carbon and biodiversity loss due to land use change. Those important issues are key indicators for sustainability.
Although the agriculture industry recognizes that the future food challenge must be solved by innovation and change, the lack of consumer trust in the current food system will stifle progress.
According to the Center for Food Integrity, shared values are more important for building consumer trust than demonstrating competence.
Still, the sustainability message is not fully received when the agriculture industry cannot agree on a definition.
Matlock, using the Field to Market coalition's example, defined agricultural sustainability as "meeting the needs of the present while improving the ability of future generations to meet their own needs by: increasing agricultural productivity while decreasing environmental impact; improving human health through access to safe, nutritious food and improving the social and economic well-being of rural communities."
In the process of achieving an innovative, sustainable agriculture industry, farmers and ranchers must discuss aspirational and vision-level goals with stakeholders in order to reach an agreement on shared values.
"If we want to have a truly innovative agriculture community, though, we have to draw a line and say the tactical and operational goals belong to the producers and the producers' community," Matlock said.
Furthermore, a standardized system — using key performance indicators of sustainable agriculture that are outcome based, science driven, technology neutral and transparent — should provide the measurements necessary to inform decisions.
Using this framework as the foundation for discussions with stakeholders in the entire field-to-fork chain could eliminate apprehension over new technologies and clarify the agriculture industry's message.