ARLINGTON, VA. — Although there are a number of challenges and issues that the agriculture industry is addressing, the list is long of others that require thought, according to panelists participating in the Feb. 25 Plenary Panel at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 92nd annual Agricultural Outlook Forum at the Crystal Gateway Marriott hotel in Arlington.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack asked each of the four panelists to provide some perspective on what challenges currently aren’t being thought about but should be generating debate.
Pamela Hess, executive director of the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture, directed her comments toward healthy, affordable food.
|Pamela Hess, executive director of the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture|
“On the health perspective, we have to make it possible for people who don’t have the money to afford quality food to afford it,” Ms. Hess said. She noted that the United States has a “strange and dysfunctional food culture,” where people think food should be really cheap.
“We think that we should pay the least amount of money that we can for the food you grow,” she said. “And I think we have to find a way to change that.”
Ms. Hess encouraged those in attendance at the conference to think creatively about how to get more food into the hands of people who need it most. She also mentioned the need for creating new farmers, pointing to military veterans as a potential pool of candidates to fill those roles.
For Ilene Gordon, chief executive officer of Ingredion, the challenges center around innovation and technology.
|Ilene Gordon, c.e.o. of Ingredion|
“When I think about the way to solve some of these problems, I think about innovation and technology,” Ms. Gordon said. “For example, this affordability issue (that Ms. Hess mentioned) is a very important one. Mexico, as an example, is an important market for us. They put in obesity laws two years ago because they thought Mexicans were not eating healthy, so they put tax on both sweetened baked goods and beverages and they did get a decrease in consumption. So (for) companies like mine, it was a call to action because how were we going to be able to help the Mexicans consume these ingredients? We actually had applications in the U.S. that were part of our specialty products, and we call this ‘Save Money.’
“With our technology we’re able to substitute starch for oil and come up with solutions for consumers that taste good and have a good mouthfeel. Texture is very important — it’s the new taste. You know that consumers, no matter what the price of the food, want it to taste good.”
Ms. Gordon said she expects the affordability issue to grow because of the trends in Mexico and the United States.
“You have to have food ingredient companies like Ingredion working with food companies on those solutions using our technology and innovation so we come up with solutions that can make the food affordable but that they taste good and they have the right texture … we need the consumers to demand that,” she explained. “As that happens the food companies then want to serve the unmet market need, and then the ingredient companies like Ingredion are there to serve the food companies.”
From the producer perspective, Pam Johnson, farmer and former president of the National Corn Growers Association, said the focus should be on building unique or innovative partnerships.
|Pam Johnson, farmer and former president of the National Corn Growers Association|
“We get into our silos, when we could do so much more if we worked together,” Ms. Johnson said. As an example, she mentioned a visit to South America featuring representatives of the N.C.G.A. and the U.S. Grains Council to study “the competition,” and found U.S. farmers had a lot in common with the South American farmers.
“If we could just take our hats off once in a while and work pre-competitively on things, so we work on trade issues, making sure grain can be moved from areas of surplus, no matter where in the world it is, to areas it’s needed,” she said.
At the university level, Kathryn Boor, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University, said one area on her mind is expanding the toolkit to more rapidly produce plant varieties that have enhanced nutritional characteristics and different agronomic characteristics and that meet the needs of those in food processing. Ms. Boor said there is a need for high-throughput phenotyping facilities, which are facilities that enable researchers to rapidly evaluate the characteristics of new plant varieties in a way that they are able to measure and quickly pick the ones that should be developed further while eliminating the ones researchers don’t want to develop.
|Kathryn Boor, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University|
“We need those types of facilities in the public sphere and in the public space so that we can focus on the types of characteristics in those plant varieties that are important to us nutritionally,” she said.Ms. Boor said these types of facilities are vital because, as climate conditions become more volatile, it will become more important for researchers to develop plant varieties in a much shorter time frame than the 20 years it currently takes.