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What is the future of food?

Thursday - 5/23/2013, 10:50am  ET

Futurefood.jpg
Food production, technology and access are all debated topics in today's health, political and food security arenas. And all determine the future of the world's food supply. (Getty Images)
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Rachel Nania, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - It's something that's enjoyed for taste and it's something that's required to survive. It's found in the ground, on trees, on shelves, in homes and in retail settings throughout the world. It defines cultures, helps to run vehicles and even influences national security decisions. It's food, and its future is up for discussion.

"We face an enormous challenge in terms of sustainability of human kind," said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack at a Washington Post Live forum this week on the sustainability of the world's food system.

The forum with private and public industry experts discussed a range of issues related to sustainability, including food production, to food technology, access to food and the health implications associated with food.

"We're going to continue to see a growing world populationů In order to be able to meet that demand, we're going to have to increase agricultural productivity and innovation by the same amount in the next 40 years or so, as we did in the preceding 10,000 years," Vilsack said.

Rebuilding Rural America

The secretary emphasizes that rebuilding the rural parts of the country is an important component to sustaining the food supply.

"Rural America is an underappreciated part of America," says Vilsack, adding that the population -- and especially the young population -- is shrinking in rural areas.

"There are three times the number of farmers over the age of 65 than we have under the age of 35."

Agriculture's current efficiencies have contributed to fewer young people becoming farmers.

"Because we have become so efficient in agriculture, we didn't overlay that efficiency with ways in which we could continue to keep young people in rural communities," says Vilsack, who also mentioned the local and regional food system is one way of encouraging people to get into the farming and agriculture businesses.

To drive the local and regional food system, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is working on five key points:

  • Providing loans and credit to beginning farmers and ranchers;
  • Increasing a customer base for farmers (promoting local farmers markets is one way to do this);
  • Improving conservation efforts;
  • Supporting crop insurance and risk management for growers;
  • Fostering the coexistence between conventional and organic food producers.

    The ranchers and produce farmers are not the only food producers affected by the decline of young farmers. Dairy farmers also are experiencing difficulties in maintaining the industry, and they predict challenges for long-term sustainability.

    President and Chief Executive Officer of Dairy Farmers of America Rick Smith explains one major obstacle is the general population's disconnect from farming.

    "The ignorance factor out there is a challenge. We like to deal in terms of facts and science with how food is produced. And I'm guessing it's close to 99 percent of the population has never been to a farm. And it's very difficult to have an informed discussion and for people to make informed choices if they have no idea where the food comes from," Smith says.

    Role of Technology in Food Production

    The role of farmers is greater than just feeding their own families.

    Pam Johnson, president of the National Corn Growers Association, sees the obligation of farmers to provide safe food as a worldwide obligation.

    Johnson says that with advances in farming technology, today's farmers can now produce six times as much on the same amount of land as farmers in her grandparents' generation.

    One of the more debated topics in food technology is the use of genetically modified organisms. GMOs are organisms where their genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally, as defined by the World Health Organization.

    Many consumers believe that foods that have been genetically modified should be labeled as such so consumers can make the personal choice about whether to eat them.

    Currently, there is no national regulation for labeling GMO products, but it is something that individual companies have begun to do in recent years. There are organizations and scientists who protest the safety of GMOs.

    "It isn't about organic versus GMOs from my point of view," Agriculture Secretary Vilsack says. "It's about agricultural choice -- the opportunity for producers to do what's best for their operation, what's best for their family and what's consistent with their values. We basically value all forms of production of agriculture, large and small."

    It is GMOs that help to produce crops, Johnson says, even in times of severe drought, which is a major consideration when planning for the future's food supply. This is because genetically modified seeds don't need as much water, so they can withstand harsher weather conditions.

    "That science and innovation brought back to the plant and to the farm is revolutionary and will continue to be that way, not only in the United States, but also in Brazil and Argentina and other countries that are using (them)," says Johnson, who adds that 88 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified.

    William Buckner, president and chief executive officer of the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, says 27 different countries will plant GMO products in this next year on more than 270 million acres of land.

    Using Corn for Ethanol

    Another topic of contention when it comes to food technology is the use of corn for ethanol in gasoline. Some farmers see it as a necessity to feed the fuel supply, while others see it as hindrance to growing and producing other food at lower costs.

    "I think the debate has been framed as food versus fuel, and it could be food and fuel. There's still 49 percent of the U.S. crop that goes into feed and 30 percent that goes into ethanol," says Johnson.

    The corn used for ethanol is not the corn consumers see in the produce aisles, it's corn that goes to feed animals, Johnson says.

    Johnson explains that ethanol is added to gasoline in very small increments, and it's done so to reduce the pollution emissions of gasoline.

    "It's a healthy oxygenate that was actually used in the very beginning to decrease smog in cities," Johnson says.

    But technology with food goes beyond using genetically modified crops and corn being used at the gas pump.

    Vice President of foods at Unilever North America Michael Faherty says technology helps to reduce food waste. Changing the chemical makeup of the coating inside product bottles, such as ketchup, is one innovation that is helping to achieve this.

    "You can actually see the product flow out better," Faherty says.

    Access to Healthy Food

    Just because the world is finding ways to produce food -- either by way of local and rural farming or through science -- does not mean people are not seeing that food, and especially healthy food, on their dinner plates.

    Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of United Fresh Produce Association, says one of the major problems with both hunger and obesity, which often go hand-in-hand, is not due to lack of enough food, but is due to access.

    "From my perspective, it's not a production issue. It's not that we don't produce enough food or that we need to produce more food, it's an access issue," says Stenzel, who adds that more work needs to be done between various public and private organizations to get healthy food to consumers, especially consumers in danger of hunger.

    To help alleviate the access issue, Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, says there has been a major effort over the last few years to bring full service grocery stores into low-income neighborhoods that are currently underserved. These areas are often referred to as "food deserts."

    However, just because grocery stores are placed in areas in danger of hunger and malnutrition, does not mean people can afford the food in the stores. Programs that allow consumers on public assistance to buy more produce are one of the ways in which local and regional programs are helping address this obstacle.

    "We are seeing much more of a focus on bringing low-cost, healthier products to consumers," says Stenzel.

    Rising Food Costs

    Lowering the cost of food to the general public is not something that Smith sees as a sustainable model for the future of food, based on the increasing costs associated with producing food.

    "In a very short period of time there's been a dramatic increase in the cost to produce this nutritious food, milk, and we're not going to go backwards.

    "It's not going to get cheaper, and we're not going to -- I don't believe -- undo a lot of the current environment," he says, alluding to national policies that will "dramatically increase the cost to produce the food in a relatively short period of time."

    "People, certainly in this country, are going to have to get used to paying a little bit more for their food. Because certainly in terms of the organization and the industry, the food is produced by families," Smith says.

    Global food aid also is not a sustainable model for the world's future, according to Jon Brause, director of the World Food Programme. Brause emphasizes the need to help families and smallholders produce more food.

    "That's ultimately what's going to make them able to have a nutritious diet over time. It's not going to be food aid, it's going to be their own ability to produce food and eat a nutritious diet."

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