3 January 2019 | Since my return last month from the global climate talks (COP24) in Katowice, Poland, I continue to mentally struggle with the events, actions and lack of actions I witnessed there that will have a significant impact on how we produce food and the efforts being made by those who want to change what – and the way – consumers should eat.
While there, I was struck by the lack of a unifying vision from the agriculture sector – not just from those who work the land, but also those in the supply chain who make their living in support of the producers of food, feed and fiber.
Here in the United States, we are witnessing what appears to be a state-by-state effort to dismantle the regulatory protections and support for agriculture that was put in place so many years ago. Those policy safeguards were adopted when appreciation for the vulnerability of the nation’s food supply was a shared experience by a much larger percentage of the American public. (There are 16 states with flags and seals that offer a nod toward the food supply and the proud notion of abundance.)
So, the starting place for this discussion on agriculture – be it livestock, crop or any other kind of food production – needs to be based on the context of history and the opposing concepts of scarcity and abundance – of choice/preference versus no choice.
If we hope to embrace strategies for global and national food security, the first priority is to protect the capacity to produce enough food for the world. We face a projected 26-percent rise in the global population by the year 2050 – 7.7 billion to 9.7 billion people. Even in the face of that massive increase, the current production of grains for livestock and for biofuel feedstocks offers a clear demonstration of the ample capacity to meet both of these needs from the global populations that would eat or use the derivative products – meat and ethanol.
If the world suffers some debilitating, catastrophic shift of climate – so much so that entire food producing regions are suddenly collapsing – how comforting it should be that at that time, we might choose to alter the productive capacity of grain use from livestock and biofuels to human consumption, driven by the urgency of delivering calories through the “plant based” diet. It’s a restorative process that would endure until the catastrophe can be addressed and productive capacity re-adjusted to meet the crisis, season by season.
In the simplest of terms, we should understand that maintaining and expanding the productive capacity of agriculture should be our highest priority. It should not be shutting down agricultural systems or stifling ag product use, as some interests in Poland have advocated.
The false narrative that the use of grains for livestock or biofuels is ruining the planet should make us nervous – especially as it is being espoused by many well-meaning individuals and groups who don’t quite appreciate or understand the challenges surrounding our agricultural endeavor.
The continuing evolution and improvement of agriculture through “climate smart” thinking must become our rallying call. We get that. And I see huge strides being made in many categories. The Solutions from the Land toolbox continues to grow exponentially. We need to stay the course with our mission and pathway forward.
My experience in Katowice was ironically encouraging and frustrating. Poland has endured more suffering than possibly any other country over the course of a century. The historically tragic winter shortages of food and energy during multiple episodes of invasion and conflict stands in stark contrast to the well-fed global negotiators and observers hoping to collectively meet the challenges of a changing climate. The equally well-nourished activists organizing around the various themes of ‘broken’ agriculture were busy advocating for an end to one component of the global food system after another. The criticisms are hard to bear, and I have to wonder how much longer the agricultural sector can stay quiet – or worse, fall into denial – about this accelerating decline of relevance.
It is difficult to comprehend just how under-appreciated agriculture has become and the loss of respect the sector has suffered. In California, voters don’t think that farmers need more water. In multiple states, the anti-animal agriculture movement is promoting policies to limit the production of livestock. Over Thanksgiving, millions of pounds of perfectly good romaine lettuce were thrown away or disked down in the fields instead of harvested because of an indiscriminate ban that failed to identify the actual source of the outbreak and generated a public panic over the entire crop. The diatribe against agriculture continues because people have more than enough to eat. Congress passes an appropriately strong farm bill and the critics scream about the injustice and irresponsibility of rewarding the agriculturists of our country. Someone says our food system is broken. And I am wondering if our universal amnesia is chronic…or is it only a temporary paralysis of our ability to think this through.
Most assuredly we will remember why agriculture is important the day we return to a world of scarcity. In the meantime, let us keep focused on the work at hand. We need to build resilience, transform and improve our capabilities and seek to build more “climate smart” capacity.
Does anyone of us in the sector see things differently? Are we slowly gaining momentum? Who will join us in advocating for the full range of goods and services farmers, ranchers and foresters can deliver from the land?
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