The future of our global food system, possible implications for producers

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The World Agricultural Forum, 2004 Regional Congress was held in St. Louis, Mo., from May 16-18.
The forum featured presentations and discussions by some of the most influential stakeholders in global agriculture and food production.
This forum, Future of the Agri-Food System: Perspectives from the Americas, brought together leaders from the private sector, government, academia, plus producer organizations and civil society organizations.
The purpose was to identify strategies, policies and tools that will create agricultural growth and stability in North and South America and the world.
Some groups came to St. Louis to protest the Forum, rather than participate.
For more information, visit the forum Web site at www.worldagforum.org.
Three groups. The Congress was divided into three distinct segments: the current state of the agri-food system, where the system needs to be in the next 5, 10, 20 years and “how” to get there.
Keep in mind that the conference organizers and participants proceed under the assumption that the world has already developed global economic and agricultural economies.
They believe that economic advantages relative to climate, labor force, transportation, markets, soils, availability of crop nutrients and energy can and will determine which agricultural enterprises will be most successful in a given region or country.
If there is more profit in growing soybeans in Brazil, then they should be grown there, even if it means U. S. farmers have to find something else to do.
Likewise, if dairy herds are only profitable with 1,000 or more cows, then smaller herds will disappear.
Where we are today. The Americas stretch from Argentina to Canada, include 34 countries and 830 million people.
The collective economies generate huge wealth, yet include developing countries which have shown little progress over the past 25 years, while developed countries have made significant strides in reducing poverty.
The Americas have 16 percent of the world’s population, but have 28 percent of the world’s agricultural land and produce 34 percent of the world’s animal proteins and cereal grains.
Because the Americas have diverse peoples and geography with many different crops and soil types and a surplus of arable land, the region will continue to play an important role in world economic growth, poverty reduction and food security.
In the future. According to the WAF 2004 summary report, several elements will shape the future of the food and agricultural sector in the Americas.
A unified vision for the future of agriculture in the region is imperative.
Effective cooperation amongst farmers to organize and between their organizations will be vitally important as will cooperation amongst the region’s governments (we have a ways to go on this one, don’t we?).
Technology transfer, they say, will play an important role in developing a level playing field for agriculture across the region (Does this mean U.S. farmers will enjoy the same living standard as central and South American farmers?).
Pro-poor policies, which help subsistence farmers improve their living standard, education and health will also make more efficient use of limited land, water and forest resources.
Trade. Many developing countries lack the technical capacity to allow them to fully benefit from world Trade Organization negotiations.
Their governments often lack the experience and competence to deal with changing trade environments.
These factors dictate that developing countries need better-developed production, transportation, research and marketing systems in order to take advantage of their potential comparative advantage in agriculture.
Farmers in these countries need better technology and better information systems to allow them to produce more efficiently and market for better profitability.
Growth in these areas of agriculture has been extremely slow in developing countries.
Only at half. However, Gary Blumenthal, president and CEO of World Perspectives, Inc., an international agriculture research firm, says food production in the Americas has currently reached only half its potential.
He says much of the world still uses primitive subsistence farming practices, and that using current state-of-the-art technology, one farmer can now manage production on nearly 5,000 acres (current U.S. farms average about 500 acres in size).
If this technology was developed world-wide, food production could double.
Held back. The factors holding back this development are cultural resistance, political problems, availability of capital, and lack of education, not land or technology.
He says $225 billion has been spent on farm programs in the U.S. to “slow the loss of family farmers.”
Blumenthal said he tried to figure out how many farmers were saved by these programs and concludes that we spent $3.1 million per family farm saved.
Yet, despite these efforts, he predicts the U.S. will lose another 20 percent of today’s farmers by 2012, not because we collectively desire this change, but because current economics and technology favor fewer, larger farms.
Bioenergy. Bioenergy which uses renewable biomass to produce energy is a possible solution to our current energy policy challenges.
This technology could, in theory, reduce the security threat posed by the world’s dependence on oil, reduce the risk to the environment caused by fossil fuels, and increase the access of the world’s poor to modern, clean, affordable energy.
Reid Dutcheon, executive director of the Energy Future Coalition, says biomass is the most promising alternative to oil.
Recent breakthroughs in technology allow the economical conversion of high-cellulose materials (such as corn-stalks, straw or municipal solid waste) into bioethanol, which could increase ethanol production from about 3 billion gallons today to 50 billion after 10 years.
Of course farmers would have to increase production of fuel crops such as switchgrass and small grains on currently idle ground not suited for row crops.
Other researchers believe we could produce 100 billion gallons of biofuels over the next 30 years.
Dutcheon says the U.S., by combining the switch to biofuels with a switch to flexible fuel vehicles, could eliminate dependence on imported oil while producing less greenhouse gas emissions than a hydrogen fuel cell car.
The bottom line. Improving the food and agriculture system is a strategic objective for arriving at a safer, more peaceful and just world.
New ways of thinking among the various segments of the food production and distribution system are required.
These new initiatives include new approaches to trade and a higher standard of ethics, especially among firms in the private sector.
Better communication between policymakers and improved transfer of information between researchers, producers, policymakers and consumers will all be required.
Find out more. I have barely covered the basic outline of the conference and its conclusions here. Check the Web site www.worldagforum.org for more information.
(The author is an agricultural extension agent in Columbiana County. Questions or comments can be sent in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)

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