The agriculture industry needs to do a better job of educating the public about the challenges of feeding a growing population and the necessity of using both traditional methods and new technology to achieve sustainable food production.
And the industry also needs to listen, says Brett Begemann, Monsanto President and COO.
Begemann sat down with Southwest Farm Press recently before addressing the Dallas Friday Group, an organization of business people with an interest in public affairs and business issues.
Begemann said society faces the daunting challenge of a population that will reach 9 billion souls, probably before 2050, with many likely to move into a growing middle class that will expect improved diets.
But the challenge is greater than just an expanding population. Begemann says water availability poses serious challenges to food production. “Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of water use,” he said. As the population increases, more people require more water, leaving less for food production. “We have to figure out a way to feed 9 billion people with less water,” he said. More drought tolerant and nutrient efficient crops will help.
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Adapting to climate change and conserving soil also pose challenges for the agriculture industry.
Technology will play a significant role in fulfilling the demand. “We have to become more efficient,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of improvement over the last few decades but we have to get more efficient using water and conserving topsoil. The good news is that most people in agriculture are willing to do that. The tools are there, but the challenge is great.”
One of those challenges is to inform the public about how their food is produced.
“More people today want more information about agriculture and where their food comes from,” Begemann said. “We all have to address the issue of sustainable agriculture. That’s a challenge for all of us.”
Explaining role of technology
And explaining how technology—including biotechnology, global positioning system agriculture, and other innovations—plays a crucial role in sustainability must be an industry priority. “We have to engage in a broader conversation about agriculture. We have to provide more information to consumers.”
Begemann said all stakeholders must be a part of that conversation. That includes farmers, associations, industry and consumers. “It’s reasonable to assume that people want facts.”
The truth, however, often becomes muddled with misinformation, rumor and innuendo that restrict fair information exchanges. The GMO issue is a case in point.
Following Begemann’s prepared remarks to the Friday Group, a Q&A session elicited a query about the safety of GMO crops.
“A lot of stuff about GMOs is simply not true,” Begemann responded. “Nearly 2,000 studies performed on biotechnology products show they are perfectly safe and no different than conventional food.”
In the earlier interview, Begemann said the studies include peer reviews, “not sponsored by biotech companies.” With some 20 years of biotech products in the marketplace and with all those studies, Begemann said “not one bellyache” has been attributed to GMOs.
The industry, he added, has to do a better job of getting that information to the public. “If we don’t engage in that dialogue, why would we think that attitudes will change? Most people are rational and intelligent,” he said, and willing to examine facts.
“We’re doing better. We are not where we want to be, but I think we’re making a difference. We continue to look for ways to do things better. Even in recent history we’ve seen the world under-supplied with food.”
For someone who works in the agriculture industry, the thought of anyone being hungry is difficult to imagine, he says.
Climate change poses another challenge and may put even more pressure on water. Begemann has seen evidence of change. When he started working with Monsanto years ago in Minnesota, North and South Dakota were considered wheat states. Now they grow a lot of corn. “Sure, better, more adaptable varieties have helped expand the corn (growing zone) but the warmer climate is a key factor.”
That represent another talking point for a discussion between agriculture and consumers, he said. Adjusting to a changing climate, at the same time the population is rapidly expanding, puts more pressure on the food production system. “That means even more pressure on conserving water and topsoil,” Begemann said. “We have to become more efficient and we have to get society to help us. That means we have to talk to them. We need for them to know that we have to use all our agriculture production systems and not engage in debates about which is better.”
He said a better dialogue with society in general would have made introduction and acceptance of biotechnology smoother and possibly prevented some of the “myths” prevalent today.
“We can’t go back, but we can do something now. We (in agriculture) are at the beginning of the food chain. We have to provide bright people with the information we have about food production. But we also have to look at the information they have. We need to do some things differently going forward.”
Begemann said the communication age offers significant new benefits and serious challenges. Information is readily available to anyone with a computer or a smart phone. “The challenge is that everyone is a publisher,” he said. But not everything published is accurate. “We have fewer checks. But we can help supply more fact-checked information that the public will see and understand.”
Social media, he added, offers agriculture an opportunity to get information to the general public.
Begemann said another critical issue, and one that has been rife with misunderstanding, is declining populations of pollinators, especially honeybees. “It is a critical topic,” he said. “Agriculture pollinators are crucial to what we are. We rely on them to produce food.”
Pesticides, even biotechnology, have been targeted as main causes of bee and other pollinator declines. “But the issue is more complex than that,” Begemann said. “A more damaging agent is the varroa mite, a pest that weakens honey bees and makes them more vulnerable to other stresses.”
He said Monsanto recently bought a company, Beeologics, to enhance research efforts in protecting bees and pollinators. “We are working diligently on this issue. Efforts will involve all stakeholders. It’s not a case of them versus us, but we are learning from each other to develop a more sustainable system.”
He said a biological control agent to target the varroa mite also shows promise. Biological development, in fact, offers a new area of concentration for Monsanto and includes the possibility of creating agents that would turn herbicide resistant weeds into susceptible targets again.
He told the Friday Group that Monsanto’s role in providing food and fiber to the world is three-fold: “Produce more; conserve more; and improve lives,” and to double key crop yields by 2030.
Declining funding of public institution agriculture research is another concern. “Government funding for agriculture research has declined significantly over the last few years in the United States and around the world. Independent companies are spending aggressively,” he said. But public institutions play vital roles in food production research. “It would be hard to argue against investing money in agriculture. We ought to feed everybody and we ought to feed them well,” he said. Research will be necessary to accomplish that.
Begemann said the agriculture industry has made significant strides over the past few decades with better, more productive varieties, better production systems that use water more efficiently and with practices that conserve soil by reducing tillage. Technology has reduced labor and energy costs and allowed farmers to do more with fewer resources.
But that’s not enough to provide for future needs.
“We have to produce affordable, safe, nutritious food,” he said. “And we have to do it sustainably.”