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High-tech production works

High-tech production works

Agriculture and food production must be high tech to feed the growing global population, but consumers' doubts and suspicions need to be addressed.

THE global population is projected to expand 30% to 9 billion people by 2050 and, based on new projections, maybe by another 20% to as many as 11 billion people by the end of the century.

The agriculture industry must respond with an abundant, affordable and safe food supply in a manner that protects and sustains natural resources, i.e., land, water and air.

This is the challenge and mission that the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA) presented in a paper summarizing its 2013 annual conference, which focused on merging values and technology.

Over time, science and technology have significantly improved the quality and quantity of food production, according to the paper, and farmers and ranchers today can grow and produce more food with greater efficiency, allowing them to feed more people while consuming fewer natural resources and generating less animal waste. Such achievements include:

* Milk production per cow in the U.S. has quadrupled since 1944. Furthermore, every gallon of milk produced requires 90% less land and 65% less water than in 1944 and generates 76% less manure. Milk's carbon footprint today is 63% smaller than in 1944.

* Beef demand in the U.S. today is being met with 33% fewer cattle than in 1977; each pound of beef produced uses 34% less land and 14% less water than in 1977, with a carbon footprint that's 18% smaller.

* An acre of wheat that fed two people in 1961 feeds six people today.

Achieving global food security by 2050 is a mission that, according to the NIAA paper, must be built on four pillars:

1. Science is universal, but solutions are local. Although science provides universal answers, technology needs to be localized due to wide variations in the environment, including the climate, pests and soils, as well as cultural traditions.

2. Science must become local wisdom. Know-how must be brought to the people and places needing it most through education and outreach to transfer knowledge and skills to communities.

3. Collaboration unlocks answers. Scientific solutions must be reached through collaborations involving farmers, local businesses and communities, the government and non-governmental organizations that understand "the facts on the ground" and also involving global interests with specialized expertise to solve specific problems.

4. Solutions must be sustainable. The food supply must be continuously expanded in conjunction with economic, social and ecological factors such as infrastructure and the improvement and preservation of land, water and other resources.

Most of today's consumers are three or more generations removed from agriculture and have little knowledge about agriculture and food production, NIAA said in its paper, noting that research has shown that Americans know more about movies and music than food production.

At the same time, this research suggests that only 22% of Americans trust agriculture to be open and transparent about how food is produced, NIAA reported.

Indeed, consumers tend to deem anything not "natural" as a threat, including antibiotics, hormones, biotechnology and genetic modification, chemicals, herbicides, pesticides and what consumers see as "factory farms," NIAA said.


Absence of evidence

Against these facts or findings, the paper says the global population is growing 1.1% per year, and urbanization is leading to an increasingly westernized diet around the world, creating more and more demand for animal protein and other value-added foods.

Food production will need to increase more than 40% by 2030 and more than 70% by 2050, NIAA said, and delivering this increase in nourishment requires a more technological agricultural and food production system.

In a detailed section of the paper, NIAA said new ideas and new production techniques based on technology can increase the efficiency and sustainability of food production.

However, consumers will have an impact on the adoption of technology and must realize that there are benefits to it. The challenge, NIAA said, is to develop technology "where consumers benefit and not merely technology that increases production."

Also, certain technology may be acceptable to consumers while other technology may not, and technology that is acceptable in the U.S. may not be acceptable in other countries.

NIAA noted that technology already is available or is being researched that can let farmers and ranchers feed the billions of people projected to be in the world in the years to come, but the issue will be the extent to which they will be permitted to use it.

Besides potential consumer resistance, another issue is the protracted length of regulatory clearance, according to the paper.

A case in point is genetically modified salmon selected to grow to market weight in 16-18 months instead of 30 months. The salmon was first produced in 1989, but the Food & Drug Administration has not yet completed its regulatory review, and the company that created the salmon has spent $60 million in the process.

Regulatory reviews can add millions of dollars and years to the cost of technology.

In its paper, NIAA quoted a 2010 report on genetically modified crops and foods that underscores the challenge: "Skeptics who remain fearful sometimes respond that the absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence."

However, it really should be assumed that if a product like the genetically modified salmon has been reviewed for 15-20 years without finding any evidence of harm, it should be accepted that there is "evidence of absence," i.e., the salmon is safe, according to the report.

NIAA, in its paper, reported that the first genetically modified crops were introduced in the early 1980s, and since then, food animals have consumed feed derived from those crops and people have consumed meals derived from those animals by the "billions" without a single case of harm attributable to the genetic modification.

Nevertheless, regulators and critics remain suspicious of genetic modification.

Regulation to ensure that a new food product is safe is important and necessary, NIAA said, but the trigger for review should be the novelty of the product or trait and not the technology that was used to create it.

NIAA's entire paper is available at www.animalagriculture.org.

Volume:85 Issue:26

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