The world population is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050. That’s not disputed. Feeding all those hungry people will require more food produced using less land and less water. That’s a fact. In fact, over the next 50 years, farmers and ranchers will have to produce more food than has been produced in the past 10,000 years combined. That’s a lot to wrap one’s mind around.
But it’s the “how do we do that” issue that was the focus of the 2014 National Institute for Animal Agriculture annual conference in early May. According to a recently released white paper from the conference, reliance on the “Precautionary Principle” could prevent the adoption of new technologies to help agriculture meet growing food demand based perceived concerns and subjective biases rather than fact and science.
The precautionary principle is a decision-making principle designed to initiate preventative action as a response to scientific uncertainty, shift the burden of proof to the proponents of a potentially harmful activity, explore alternative means to achieve the same goal, and involve stakeholders in the decision-making process. In practical terms, it’s a political tool used to block innovation.
The white paper identifies an often-quoted definition of the principle developed by a group of environmentalists in the 1990s that said “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not established scientifically…It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.” Or according to one speaker at the conference, when the principle is “selectively applied to politically disfavored technologies and conduct,” it is used as a “barrier to technological development and economic growth.”
What does this have to do with animal agriculture? Well-funded opposition is increasingly working to influence legislation and regulation, and undermine consumer confidence in food safety for genetically engineered ingredients, according to the white paper. The paper highlighted a nearly two-decades’ old effort to obtain approval for a genetically modified salmon that has been held up by activists and their attorneys based on economic and social concerns, not science. Further, the result is causing some technology companies to move overseas to places like China and Brazil.
In other words, opposition to technology – technology that could “improve food availability, lower food costs, and enhance biomedical research, treatments and production – could result in a situation where the United States is exporting our researchers and importing our food. Increasingly, opponents to technology who work to block modern agricultural advancements are protecting us hungry. While farmers and ranchers can meet the needs of today’s consumers, meeting future food demands will be impossible without innovation and technology.
So what do we do? The speakers at the conference suggest part of the solution relies replacing the precautionary principle with a focus on key performance indicators related to continuous improvement and sustainability that are “outcome based, science driven, technology neutral, and transparent.” The white paper says then those indicators should be used to help build trust among consumers in the production practices utilized by farmers and ranchers. According to the white paper, the use of sustainability key performance indicators can aid in communicating with consumers, lawmakers and regulatory agencies about the benefits of technology and help keep government decisions on new food technologies based on science, rather than fear and emotion.
The full white paper is available to be viewed on the National Institute for Animal Agriculture’s website.