U.S. agriculture is facing a barrage of challenges ranging from tough domestic and international issues to evolving consumer attitudes about food production which likely will alter the future of farming.

This scenario was painted by Daniel Vradenberg, agribusiness division president with Wilbur-Ellis, Walnut Creek, Calif. Vradenberg spoke during the 36th annual California Association of Pest Control Advisers (PCAs) Conference and Agri-Expo in Anaheim, Calif.

“Agriculture must work together on big issues regardless if we are competitors, independents, small or large retailers, or provide crop input supplies,” Vradenberg said.

Vradenberg shared his Top 12 list of the challenges facing U.S. agriculture including: world food shortages, emerging economies in China and India, unstable financial markets, volatile commodity prices, food safety issues, the impact of currency on trade, the 2012 farm bill, carbon footprints, energy independence, immigration policy, government protectionism and trade, plus extreme weather patterns.

Specifically in California pest management, Vradenberg believes the major issues involve increasing regulations on land, water and air. PCAs also face negative public perception for good pest management techniques, including aerial treatment for the light brown apple moth.

When a food safety issue surfaces, the public often points the finger first at pesticides.

“The general public usually thinks it’s caused by chemical residues,” Vradenberg said. “Most of the time it’s a microbial contamination issue.”

Other dynamics in California pest management include: increased accountability for crop production practices and greater consequences for mistakes; grower customers who demand better service and more value; and an economy which drives businesses to achieve purchasing efficiencies.

On top of that, public opinion is shifting on the pest management industry and agriculture; in some cases against modern agricultural technology, according to the results of a consumer perception of food technology survey conducted by the International Food Information Council.

“Survey results indicate the general public wants food grown on less land, the use of fewer pesticides, a smaller carbon footprint, and reduced water to grow the crop,” Vradenberg said.

“It’s estimated we will need to feed an additional 2 billion people (globally) in the next 30 to 40 years on 20 percent less land due to climate degradation and urbanization,” Vradenberg said. “I think we can meet that challenge but we must have reasonable agricultural policy.”

Research by the Edelman public relations firm in 2010 of 800 people cites two differing views of U.S. food production and pest management. One side supports the organic movement which opposes fertilizer and crop protection chemical use and biotechnology, Vradenberg says, and favors locally-produced food without large-scale monoculture.

The other side argues the organic movement cannot feed the world and modern agricultural practices are necessary to meet the growing demand for food.

Public trust

The Edelman research delved deeper to gauge who the public trusts and does not trust in the agricultural sector on food-related issues. The results suggest that by in large the general public trusts “farmers,” but not so much “growers.”

“I think the general public is getting so far removed from agriculture and how food is grown that they are somewhat confused about who is a farmer and who is a grower,” Vradenberg said. “They think there is a difference between the two. They believe farming is a localized lifestyle business and perceive growers as closer to agribusiness.”

Another pointed question inquired about consumer trust of agricultural companies. More than 25 percent of the respondents believe agricultural companies would not do the right thing in food-related issues.

Regarding a question on regulations of chemical and fertilizer use to produce and preserve food, more than 50 percent of the consumers, regardless of their political party affiliation, said more regulations are needed.

“This is a serious issue for agriculture,” Vradenberg said. “We can’t effectively produce crops without these tools. We can’t afford to be burdened with excessive regulations.”

On water use in agriculture, more than half of the surveyed consumers supported more regulations on water use in food production and processing. 

Edelman also quizzed consumers on organically-grown food. More than 60 percent of the consumers supported regulation to require more organically-grown food in the U.S. More than 40 percent believe organic agriculture can grow enough food to fill the stomachs of a growing population.

“Consumers like the concept of organic food,” Vradenberg said. “They associate organic food as locally produced, fresh, and nutritious and therefore good for the local economy.”

Overall, Vradenberg says public attitudes reveal the average consumer is not well informed about agriculture.

Organic food represents less than 5 percent of all food consumed in the U.S. and continues as a growing trend.

“Should we ignore organic or fight it? Neither,” says Vradenberg. “We need to find a balance.”

Internationally, organic food lacks a major following. About one-third of the world’s 6.9 million residents is malnourished, according to the United Nations. About 1.3 billion people earn about $1 in income per day and cannot afford organic food or enough meat in the diet. Vradenberg says many of them do not consume enough calories to be physically or mentally productive.

On agriculture’s future, U.S. agriculture has its work cut out, Vradenberg says. While most farm ground in China and India produces low yields, this will change exponentially down the road and one day will challenge U.S. farmers.

Domestic future trends at home will include finding technological solutions for food safety issues, climate change, water scarcity and environmental degradation while producing more food on less land.

Efforts to curb obesity in the U.S. will increase; the No. 1 cost of the U.S. health care system. That, Vradenberg says, will bid well for California farmers.

“Many crops grown in California have a bright future because they improve the human diet. There will be increased consumption of fresh produce in the future.”

cblake@farmpress.com