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The Future of Food: Farmers Are the Vanguard

I heard food futurist Jack Bobo speak at the 37th annual International Sugar Symposium in Vail, Colorado in early August.

The definition of a food futurist is not someone who predicts the future of our food systems but one who can understand what the “preferred” future could looks like and helps existing systems adapt and adjust to that preferred future.

A case in point: before the pandemic, most consumers had never considered ordering groceries from food stores and having them delivered but it appears that home food delivery will become a permanent part of our consumption.

By Jim Simon – American Sugar Cane League

Right now, food companies, think tanks and government planners are considering a 25 percent increase in the 2020 global population of 7.8 billion to 9.5 billion in 2050. How will we feed everyone? Our farmers will be working overtime to feed the population, and they should be treated as heroes but they are often considered the bad guys who are destroying the Amazon’s rain forest. The truth is bad policy is hurting the rain forest.

In March 2021, the European Union set a target that 25 percent of its agricultural land should be dedicated to organic farming by 2030.That all sounds nice and natural, but Bobo thinks it’s short sighted. It means Europe will have to import food from overseas, most likely from Brazil who will have to cut rain forest to meet the demand. So, what do we want? More food or more rain forest? An inconvenient truth or a reassuring lie?

Farmers, in the age of chemical fertilization, mechanics and improved genetics, have done a remarkable job of producing food in the last 100 years. Louisiana’s sugarcane industry has doubled its sugar production in the last 40 years. Our rice and other grain producers have produced similar results. Consider the period between 1980-2011. Bobo cited figures from the United State Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. To produce one bushel of corn, the numbers show that farmers reduced both land use and energy needs by 40 percent. Water usage was reduced by 50 percent and erosion reduced 60 percent. Farming machines are also emitting fewer greenhouse gases by 35 percent. But the challenge is to  continue increasing food production to feed a rapidly growing world population because we’ll need 50 to 60 percent more food by 2050.

There is a lot of bad press hurled at agriculture because 690 million people in the world go to bed hungry every night. Yes, 690 million hungry people is a big number and that feels like a broken food system.  But look at the numbers in a different way. In 1990, the United Nations estimated there were a billion undernourished people. In 2020, the population increased by a billion yet the number of people who go hungry today was reduced by more than 300 million. The food system is not broken. It’s working, but it is certainly being challenged.

The fact is we’re getting better. Sustainability is key. Farmers are producing more but using less and doing what they can to protect precious resources like the rain forest. In fact, more than a quarter of all the forest that exists today is because agriculture has improved yield while using less. The irony is agriculture is the single biggest driver of deforestation and the biggest protector of forests.

The good news is that futurist Bobo believes that conventional agriculture will deliver most of the gains necessary to save the planet. He also believes things are getting better but not fast enough, that there are no perfect solutions, only tradeoffs and that we must speak about what we “could” do rather that what we “should” do.

We’re not going to solve tomorrow’s problems with today’s thinking, so we’ll have to embrace sustainability, innovation and research. Farmers may be conservative politically and socially, but when it comes to producing a sustainable crop, they are the vanguard of change.

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