U.S. says yes, Australia says no

By William C. Bailey

Recently, I was asked to speak at the annual Farmer Appreciation Day Luncheon, in Walnut, Illinois. The luncheon was sponsored by the Walnut Rotary Club. In this column, I recap the comments made in Walnut which centered on world population growth to 2050, changes in what consumers buy and changes in how they buy them. All three of these areas have very important implications for agriculture.

The first area discussed was the forecast, by the United Nations, that the world will have 2 billion more people to feed in 2050 than today. The question “How will agriculture increase its production by 70-100 percent to meet the challenge of feeding such a population?” results in several answers and more questions. For example, should efforts be made to improve the productivity of small land owners – those farming 5 to 10 acres – rather than putting those efforts into new technology and new seed? Should greater efforts be made to reduce harvest and post-harvest loss? There will be both bountiful and lean years of agricultural output. Should there be a global food reserve? In my view, vital to the success of feeding the world is innovation: new technologies to improve crop and livestock yields and the adoption of new production methodologies, products, partnerships and ideas. Agriculture can meet this production challenge because of the new generation of technology-weaned, innovative people taking over operation of the family farm. They influence the rate by which new ideas in agriculture are accepted. They are open minded, willing to accept change and willing to try new ways to do things. To me this group is key to understanding and adapting to change to meet tomorrow’s challenges and opportunities. I don’t think this openness is always fully appreciated.

The second of my comments centered on the fact that what consumers are buying is changing. I look at the action taken by McDonald’s to sell only antibiotic free chicken as an example. For McDonald’s to emphasize how a product is produced represents a significant change for them. The company sees the growing importance of consumers’ interest in how things are done on the farm. It seems the consumer is at the farm gate and wants to have a look around. Such consumer interest provides direction to agricultural production. Other examples of the recognition of consumer preferences includes the demand by the State of California that egg production must meet certain standards; the request, by some pork buyers, that gestation crates no longer be used in hog production; and the interest in labeling whether or not a food contains genetically modified organisms (GMO).

The third area of discussion, focusing on how consumers buy food, provides an opportunity for local agriculture to directly reach customers around the world. Today, safe and high quality local food products are as close as your computer. With proper product tracking, a consumer could follow a product from the pasture to the plate – wherever in the world that plate, or pasture, is located.

The combination of a growing middle class around the world, increased use of online shopping and consumers’ desire to interact directly with the farmer, could create a whole new supply chain for American farmers. This is a unique opportunity to modify the US Department of Agriculture’s ‘know your farmer, know your food’ slogan, regardless of where the farmer and consumer live.

Professor Bailey formerly was the Chief Economist for the US Senate Committee on Agriculture, Food and Nutrition. He also has served as Deputy-Under Secretary of Agriculture.

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