Feeding the World is a Sobering Reality

By: Terry Fleck, CAE, Executive Director, Center for Food Integrity   Date: 11/9/11

Food Choices - Challenges - Realities was the theme for the Center for Food Integrity's recent annual gathering in Chicago which was co-hosted by IFIC and the National Restaurant Association.  It was our largest, most diverse group in the five year history of this event, possibly reflecting the growing challenges created by the public's growing interest in what they eat and how it is produced.

We chose this theme because each of us is working to balance the choices, challenges and realities we face every day whether as a consumer or in our role in the food system. An outstanding lineup of speakers and panelists brought meaningful perspective on a wide array of issues.

Possibly the most poignant viewpoint came from Dr. Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund - one of the most respected environmental organizations in the world.  Having an environmentalist address a food system audience might not seem like a natural fit, but Dr. Clay feels food production is the planet's most important issue.

With the global population expected to peak at 9-billion by mid-century - 2 billion more people than today - Clay talked about the daunting task ahead for food producers. Here are some of his thoughts:

- "Our goal at WWF - conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services - is the same now as it's ever been. But our strategy is absolutely different. The challenge going forward is where and how we produce food?  If we don't get the answers to those two questions then we can just turn out the lights and go home as a conservation group because there won't be anything left to talk about."

- "We must intensify production but we have to do it sustainably. Should consumers have a choice about sustainable products on a finite planet? How do we get companies to make all of their products so that they're sustainable? When does sustainability become a pre-competitive issue?"

- "We have to freeze the environmental footprint of food. That doesn't mean we freeze productivity. We must double productivity. We need to double what we're getting from every drop of water, with every meter of land, with every pound of nitrogen."

- "The best producers are 100 times better than the worst. A study in a three-county area of Nebraska found there was a difference of ten times between the better and the worst producers of corn. Here in the U.S. we tend to think the differences are between us and Africa or us and China. It's in our own backyard. We need to learn how the better ones are doing it and spread the information more quickly. This needs to be a pre-competitive issue."

-  "We currently waste one of every three calories we produce. If we eliminate waste we would have to produce half as much new food by 2050. 90 percent of our research dollars are spent on productivity while 40 percent of the crops we produce are wasted. Is that the right priority?"

Producing more food in the next 40 years than we have in the previous 8,000 years combined is a sobering reality. The only way to achieve it is through the adoption of new technology and innovation. We can pretend that the public's growing concern about today's food system won't impact our business or our ability to use truly sustainable systems to meet the growing global demand for food. Or we can embrace this heightened public interest as a new opportunity to engage stakeholders across the food system using increased transparency and new models to build public support for today's food and agriculture.