Finding the sweet spot in the food conversation

How is agriculture and food production impacting the planet? Many naysayers believe our farming and food system is taking its toll, linking agriculture to 10 to 15 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, while painting it as a resource hog that gobbles up 40 percent of the earth’s land base and 70 percent of its water.

Jack Bobo, however, believes that agriculture has done a good job feeding an ever-expanding global population. Bobo is a futurist with a hefty food resume, including stops in the U.S. Department of State and the biotechnology industry, who says unfortunately most environmental and conservation groups don’t share the full story of agriculture.

Bobo admits that agriculture does have its challenges — the nitrification of water and deforestation, for example — “but if you look at where we’ve come from things look dramatically different,” he says.

At the Ontario Certified Crop Advisors Association annual meeting earlier this month Bobo, CEO of Futurity Consulting, shared a different view of agriculture: one that reveals significant progress and efficiencies that have delivered tremendous benefits. He notes that between 1980 and 2011, U.S. farmers reduced the amount of water required to produce a bushel of corn by 50 per cent, while the level of soil erosion caused by each bushel dropped by 60 percent.

“Things are wildly better today than they were in the past, but people don’t see those productivity gains and believe things are moving in the wrong direction,” he says.

Bobo also shared hunger statistics to support his point. He noted that 800 million people on the planet go to bed hungry, about 12 per cent of world population. “That sounds like a broken food system… but if you went back 30 years ago that number would have been 24 per cent of all the people on the earth,” he says. Fifty years ago, 36 percent of all people went to bed hungry. “Things are not bad and getting worse, they’re good and getting better, but not fast enough.”

In this interview, Bobo tells RealAgriculture’s Bernard Tobin that when telling agriculture’s story one of the big challenges farmers face is the declining influence of scientific solutions and evidence. “If you lead with science, you are going to lose with science,” he says.

Bobo believes it’s critical for farmers to personalize agriculture’s story. Farmers need to tell people why they do what they do, acknowledge people’s concerns and understand why people worry about their food. “That’s how you build trust,” says Bobo. “If you build trust then there’s an opportunity to engage in a scientific conversation.” (Story continues after the interview.)

When he looks at population growth models — global population is expected to peak in the 2050s before slowly declining in the second half of the century — Bobo notes that agriculture will need consumers’ blessing to utilize science, technology and innovation if it hopes to meet the planet’s food needs. “In the next 30 to 40 years, we have to produce as much food as we produced in the past 10,000 years of human civilization. That’s an enormous challenge,” he says.

To have the necessary freedom to operate and utilize technology advances, Bobo believes all agriculture stakeholders will have to engage with consumers to help build public trust and “de-escalate” the food conversation. “Science tells us what we can do,” he notes, “but it’s the public that tells us what we should do.”

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