At this morning’s opening general session, Bayer CropScience presented the United Fresh Produce Association with a $1.1 million endowment grant as initial funding to develop a new Center for Global Produce Sustainability. This is exciting news for United Fresh, as it will allow them to take a leadership role in an area that’s top of mind for most businesses right now. For now, the primary goals of the center will include defining a set of metrics that businesses throughout the produce supply chain—including growers, packers, distributors and retailers—can use to benchmark their sustainability performance, and developing educational tools, services and programs to help all of those businesses incorporate sustainability efforts into their day-to-day practices. United Fresh will soon begin recruiting an advisory board for the Center and searching for a sustainability expert for their permanent staff.
Bayer CropScience has initiated or participated in several recently launched agricultural sustainability efforts. For example, their “Winter Cereals: Sustainability in Action” project, launched with Ducks Unlimited in January, aims to develop new ways to help winter wheat growers preserve wetlands and waterfowl habitats. And, parent company Bayer has several programs in place that focus on issues such as climate change and energy and water efficiency.
It is notable to point out that we’re starting to see a divergence in how “sustainability” is defined. The goal of Bayer CropScience—and presumably United Fresh with its new Center for Global Produce Sustainability—is to use a variety of tools, such as improved water and pest management, integrated crop management and more efficient distribution chains to protect wildlife habitats, reduce carbon emissions and still grow more food for the planet’s growing population. These tools, however, will include new technologies such as genetically modified crops as well as improved pesticides and herbicides—methods that have never sat well with environmental activism groups, who are in many ways still driving this discussion for the public.
Yet the world’s population is expected to reach 8 billion by 2025, John Smith, director of the Horticulture Region for Bayer Cropscience noted during a press conference held to explain the new Center. He followed that stat with something alarming. To feed the world’s projected population this century, global agriculture will “need to produce as much [food] in the next 80 years as we have in the last 12,000.”
Right now, U.S. consumers have the luxury of supporting sustainability efforts in a variety of ways, and many environmental activists argue that supporting locally grown foods when they are in season is the best way shoppers can eat fruits and vegetables in healthy, low-impact way. But, the world is clearly approaching a time when its population will overwhelm solutions such as local food webs—maybe not in the U.S. or Europe, but certainly in other regions, including rapidly growing parts of Asia. Research into technologies that allow more production on existing farmland could also help preserve wildlife habitats and rainforest land while averting human misery in the developing world.
As this debate has heated up, environmental and food activism groups have adopted a position of near-denial, arguing that returning to pre-War farming methods is the best way to feed the planet without contributing to the world’s environmental problems. Meanwhile—and this is just a personal observation—in a handful of recent columns written by or presentations given by biotech think tank representatives, I’ve noticed an attitude of growing dismissiveness toward environmental groups and their concerns. “We’re trying to save the world and these activists still have their heads stuck in the early 20th century” type of thing. (Thankfully, I haven’t noticed any of that attitude coming anyone here at the show.)
At some point, activism groups are going to have to admit that the U.S. is blessed with an embarrassment of riches both in terms of arable land and population density, a lot of other countries don’t have those advantages, and that as these population dense countries begin climbing out of poverty, they’re going to expect to eat things other than rice for every meal. Local food webs can and should play a big role in sustainable agriculture here in the U.S., and growers and retailers, big and small, should recognize that demand for local foods and answer it. On the other hand, agribusiness and biotech companies should start listening more closely to consumer and activist concerns as they attempt to develop new technologies to address new problems. Otherwise, these divergent definitions of “sustainability” are going to turn into a really thorny debate soon.
Regardless, Bayer CropScience’s generous donation to United Fresh, and the creation of the new Center for Global Produce Sustainability is a great place for the produce industry to start responding to some of these issues and questions, both on the research and development side and on the consumer outreach side.