By Michael Doane
Sustainable Agriculture Policy
I had a cool opportunity today to think more about farming and the role it plays in the future of food when I joined a panel discussion at the International Association Culinary Professionals at their annual meeting in San Francisco. We focused on answering this question: What is the future of food?
Growing up on a working wheat and cattle farm in northwest Kansas, I never really thought about how the work was connected to food. Sure – wheat goes into bread and cattle provide milk and meat. I understood that, but my days were consumed by trying to control weeds, irrigate the crops and keeping the cattle fed. Along with my family, we were racing around the farm trying to (1) keep bad things from happening, or (2) fix things that were already broke. The cows are out! The weeds are getting away from us in this field! The tractor just broke down! It was an all consuming attempt to manage the tyranny of the urgent.
At Monsanto, I co-lead our focus on sustainable agriculture. I have the time to be a little more esoteric and think about the relationship between my experiences as a farmer and the questions people might have about food, including what the future might hold. A few things come to mind.
First, we’re going to need more food. With growing global population and incomes, the UN-FAO suggests we will need 70 percent more food than we are producing today by mid-century (2050). Some have said we will need to produce more food between now and 2050, than has been produced since the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago. Farmers are quite capable of producing this much food. It won’t be easy, but the potential is certainly there.
I say this because some much of the cropland under production today is managed in a sub-optimal manner. Consider the fact that just 10 percent of the world’s cropland area is utilizing the benefits of biotechnology. Despite the proven yield benefits of hybrid corn, fully one third of the world’s corn area is still planted to open pollinated varieties. Less than 10 percent of the cropland is managed using conservation tillage practices to conserve water and reduce the risk of crop failure. The list could go on. My point is that a lot of capacity is left to increase productivity and grow more food.
Second, while not a nutritionist or dietician, I understand that we won’t just need more food but better food. Today, fully 65 percent of the calories consumed globally is derived from just five crops – wheat, rice, corn, soybeans, and sugar. These crops are hyper-efficient at converting natural resources (such as soil, water, and energy) to the kind of calories consumers demand.
As an economist, this makes sense to me. Over hundreds of years, farmers have continued to cultivate and improve the crops they find most responsive to management and profitability. Chefs and food technologists have taken these relatively efficient crops and made foods we love to eat. It also helps that that these crops can support convenience foods – meals that require less preparation time and fit into a busy lifestyle.
But the food mix will inevitably need to change over time. While these foods are tasty and convenient, we will need more affordable fruits, vegetables, and functional foods to support a balanced diet. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says just 14 percent of Americans eat the recommended daily allowances of fruits and vegetables.
Finally, whatever food we produce and consume, it will need to make good use of our limited natural resource base. Agriculture already uses 70 percent of the freshwater withdrawals annually. Crop and livestock production is relatively energy intense. In many parts of the world, we are still losing topsoil at unsustainable rates. While there is more land to convert to agricultural production, there are losses to biological diversity when this occurs.
Farmers are going to produce more food to meet growing demand. I have little doubt about this. But, will we – as a global society – enable the most ecologically efficient means of production? And, will we be able to entice consumers with more affordable and appealing fruits and vegetables to consume a more balanced diet?
Providing solutions to these challenges is the mission of Monsanto. Personally, I want to work for a future where the most affordable food and the most nutritious food are the same thing. I’m proud of our contributions so far and excited to see how we can continue to support both farmers and chefs as they navigate the future of food.
This article is adapted from a speech by Michael Doane at the 35th Annual Meeting of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) in San Francisco on April 8, 2013. You can follow him on Twitter @MichaelKDoane.