To ensure future food supply, we must address difficult questions

June 19, 2012

By 2050, it’s estimated that there will be an additional two billion people on Earth. With parts of the globe already facing resource shortages, consider for a moment what it will take to feed that nine billionth person.

To ensure the future food supply, we must address a series of complex, interconnected and often conflicting issues. We have to produce more food with limited farmable land, and we must do so in a way that promotes water and soil conservation and improves the livelihoods of farm workers and agricultural communities.

This demands a collaborative effort, the likes of which we have not yet attempted on such a large scale. We must reach out broadly and engage the entire food and agriculture supply chain — from organic and mainstream farmers and ranchers to nutritionists, development experts, processors, retailers and consumers.

Thanks to growing interest in food production from an increasingly diverse set of stakeholders, we are at a tipping point in food and agriculture policy and have a unique opportunity to make changes today that will impact future generations.

From consumers who are concerned about health and supporting their local economies to the military, which is worried that over a quarter of 17- to 24-year-olds are too overweight to serve their country, people are finding that food and agriculture policy must be a national priority.

We cannot influence change from within our current silos and without asking: What is inspiring? What is working, and what isn’t? And, perhaps most importantly, what is missing?

We need a new approach that is systemic. Otherwise, when a problem is tackled in one place, like squeezing a balloon, it will simply bulge out elsewhere.

Four of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States are related to diet and obesity. At the same time, in 2010, more than 16 million children lived in food insecure households, where they did not have consistent access to adequate healthy food. And a recent study estimates that, in an egregious squandering of precious resources, more than 600 pounds of food are wasted per person per year in the United States.

If it were easy to reduce food insecurity or improve nutrition, we’d all be healthier. But so much goes into our dietary decisions: culture, social influences, media and forces of supply and demand. As a collective, all of us must work to address questions such as: What steps must be taken to encourage people to eat smartly? How should the roles of the public sector, agricultural producers, food manufacturers, distributors, retailers and advertisers be redefined so there is a larger supply and demand for healthy food? Many ideas are percolating to address this problem — from controlling portion sizes in restaurants to doubling federal food stamp program (SNAP) dollars for fresh produce to mandating more physical education in schools.

The medical community, health and school officials, the foreign assistance and development community, food marketers, agriculture producers and civil society, including private foundations, must come together to answer these questions and take action.

At its core, the future of any food system depends on the viability and vitality of its farm businesses and workers, and more must be done to help them thrive. New farmers often lack access to credit, and they often have to open multiple credit cards, borrow from family and friends or mortgage their houses to cover their costs. Because of the high costs and low incomes in farming, many workers on small and mid-sized farms depend on off-farm income and need a second or third job.

Because farms differ by size, use of hired workers, types of commodities raised and production practices, they each have unique sets of workforce issues. Farms that use hired labor, for example, grapple with how to ensure a stable, skilled workforce while working with more than one million seasonal and year-round farm employees, many of whom are unauthorized immigrants.

Clearly, we need a systemic approach to agriculture in the 21st century. The first step in driving positive change is to develop a broad framework for action. This framework must break down the barriers inhibiting change today — siloed programs, competing interests, and conflicting motivations If you eat, you should care about ensuring access to nutritious and affordable food for yourself and future generations.

Atwood is the executive director of AGree, a collaborative initiative on food and agriculture policy. www.foodandagpolicy.org.

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