American consumers have been flooded with news and information in recent years about the virtues of food raised “the old way.” Foods such as those labeled natural, organic or locally raised. In short, the marketers of such food would like Americans to believe that food raised without the benefit of science and technology is somehow better. Better tasting, better for you—even safer.
Clearly, the natural and health food market is well established in America, long viewed as the wealthiest country in the world.
But it’s not a stretch to say that if you were hungry enough, natural and organic would fall pretty low on the preference scale. Indeed, even the safety of food would become a lower priority.
Today there are nearly 1 billion hungry people in the world. That’s about 15 percent of Earth’s current population of 6.7 billion. By the year 2050, the population is expected to reach 9.5 billion people—and it’s possible nearly 3 billion will be malnourished.
Population growth raises the questions of how or whether we can feed so many people.
Jeff Simmons, the president of Elanco Animal Health, believes that it is possible to feed that many people in the coming years—but agriculture must rely on technology to help meet the “growing demand for safe, nutritious and affordable food.”
Last month Simmons released a white paper—“Food Economics and Consumer Choice”—that examined the problems facing agriculture and food producers.
In just 50 years, Simmons says, our growing global population will require an estimated 100 percent more food than we produce today. “Unfortunately, we will certainly not have 100 percent more high-quality land available to grow twice the amount of grain or two times more livestock.”
Added farmland may help produce 20 percent more food, and 10 percent may come from cropping intensity. That means 70 percent of the world’s additional food needs “can only be produced with new and existing agricultural technologies.”
Still, doubling food production in 50 years would seem a daunting task—until you examine the past 50 years. U.S. corn yield per acre, for instance, increased 292 percent between 1950 and 2000, pushing average bushels per acre from 39 to 153. Meat production in the United States increased 88 percent during that time, and egg production jumped 411 percent.
“This should give us ample reason to believe we can meet the world’s growing need for food,” Simmons says. “Why? Because according to the USDA Economic Research Service, the development of new agricultural technologies—including advances in genetics, nutrition, disease and pest control, and livestock management—was an important factor in these 20th-century productivity improvements.”
Simmons acknowledges that consumers may worry about food safety, but a survey last year by the International Food Information Council revealed that when consumers are asked to rank specific food concerns, about half cited “disease and contamination” at the top. “Yet only 7 percent reported that they worry about agricultural production methods, and 1 percent cited biotechnology as a top-of-mind concern,” Simmons says.
And who do consumers trust most to ensure science-based food safety? According to research by the Center for Food Integrity, food producers are most trusted—those who rely on modern technologies to help them grow food safely and efficiently.
Simmons acknowledges that some consumers desire organic foods and are willing to pay for them. “All consumer preferences can and should be protected,” he says. But Simmons also recognizes that “the undernourished in developing nations…deserve the affordable foods that can be produced with carefully monitored, efficiency-improving agricultural technologies.
“The challenge of helping these millions of people requires us to ask ourselves: Can we afford not to use the technologies at our disposal to produce food as efficiently as possible?”