When four agricultural experts gathered on the WSU campus recently to talk about the state of the global food system, nearly 400 community members, students, faculty and staff crowded into Ensminger Pavilion to hear what they had to say.
The experts were brought together by the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences to wrestle with the issues facing modern agriculture. Called “Feed the World,” the event in Ensminger was part of the college’s participation in the university’s Common Reading program, “Food for Thought.” The program requires freshmen across the university to all read the same book; this year, students read Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”
One of the big questions the panelists discussed was inspired by the observation that the world’s population is growing. Even if, as some experts predict, it stabilizes at roughly 9 billion, that’s a lot of mouths to feed. What, the audience wanted to know, are the obstacles and opportunities in creating a safe and abundant food supply?
Trudy Bialic, public affairs director for PCC Natural Markets (the largest consumer-owned grocery co-operative in the United States), said the greatest obstacle facing the global food supply is “concentration.
“It’s not about being big, per se,” she said. “Rather, it’s the concentration of genetics that concerns me.” She pointed to the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-nineteenth century as an example of what can go wrong when crop genetics are concentrated, restricted to a single species. Irish farmers grew one crop almost exclusively, potato, and only one type of potato, the lumper, which wasn’t very nutritious to begin with. When blight hit the fields of Ireland, more than a million Irish died of starvation while another two million fled their homeland. The population of Ireland was cut in half in just a few years, and has never recovered.
Eric Hurlburt, domestic marketing and economic development chief for the Washington State Department of Agriculture, said that the main obstacle he sees is the loss of farmland to development. He cited a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report that says the world needs to increase food production by 70 percent in the next few decades. “Water, land, seed and soil are critical,” he said.
Wheat farmer Russ Zenner, who has studied agricultural systems in a number of countries around the globe, said that he worries about consumers’ lack of awareness about where their food comes from. That goes both ways, he said, as he’s critical of the USDA’s policy of subsidizing certain crops, regardless of their nutritional value.
“The commodity mentality is wrong,” Zenner said. “We need more emphasis on producing nutrition.”
Rancher Dick Coon, who also serves as president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, said that agriculture has done a great job of producing a huge food supply for a growing population. The challenge, he said, is reaching out to young people so that they become enthusiastic about entering the profession.
Bialic agreed: “Give a farmer a fair price, and more will want to be farmers.”
Another issue the panelists discussed was the price of food relative to annual income.
“We’ve ‘Wal-Martized’ our food decades ago,” said Hurlburt, meaning that we expect to find a great variety of cheap food at our grocery stores. Several of the experts pointed out that Americans spending on food is at an all-time low, down, from about 25 percent of annual income at the beginning of the twentieth century, to somewhere between 6 and 10 percent of annual income today.
“If we paid realistic prices for our food,” said Hurlburt, “we’d see more sustainable practices: there’d be more labor available and lower use of chemicals.”
The idea that “food is cheap,” said Bialic, “is one of the greatest misperceptions people have about our food system.”
“People think their food comes from Safeway,” said Hurlburt.
The panelists were asked about the environmental impact of farming.
Zenner said that if people were better educated about the food system they’d be more inclined to pay the true costs involved in food production.
Coon said one of the biggest misperceptions he encounters is that people think farmers and ranchers don’t care about the land, that they’re merely exploiting the earth for profit. “But we’re invested in the land, in the lifestyle of ranching,” he said “Of course we care — about the birds, the water, all of it. It’s where we live.”
Bialic pointed out another misperception, that livestock are bad for soil. She said there’s evidence (for instance, a WSU study called “Beefing Up the Palouse”) that fallow land is of higher quality when it is grazed by ruminants.
Bialic said that European countries subsidize farmers, rather than particular crops as in the U.S., resulting in smaller farms with a greater diversity of crops. “Decentralization in the food system is more sustainable,” she said.
Coon disagreed. “If we decentralize, where will all the labor come from?” he wondered.
Bialic responded, saying that if we paid the true cost for our food farmers would be able to pay more for labor.
But manual laborers are scarce, Hurlburt pointed out. “And mechanization, the answer to a shortage of labor, requires farming operations to be more concentrated.”
There were two things all four experts agreed on: there are no easy answers to questions of sustainability and the future of food system and the land-grant universities, including WSU, with their mission to research and educate, are essential to answering the difficult questions.