WOOSTER, Ohio — By 2050, the world’s population could reach 50 billion people, while the tillable land could decline to 0.37 acres per capita.
What does this mean in terms of food production? What does this mean in terms of the current 852 million people already affected by hunger and malnutrition and the 1.3 billion people affected by poverty?
According to Terry Etherton, department head and professor of animal nutrition at Penn State University, it means agriculture will be challenged to increase food production in a sustainable manner on the same 3.7 billion acres by 2050.
Etherton told dairy producers, Extension and industry professionals attending the ninth annual Northeast Ohio Regional Dairy Conference Feb. 20 that while agricultural biotechnology has numerous benefits — economic benefits, productive efficiency, improved production, food safety, nutritional benefits and healthier animals — there is a battle taking place in the country.
Etherton said the battle is over milk and other animal products, technology and production practices, animals, farming and in the end, producers’ livelihood.
“If more of our food is produced off shore, how can we have a secure food supply?” he asked.
Etherton cited technology such as rbST, Rumensin, synchronization programs, artificial insemination, genetic advancements and cloning, antibiotics and other types of drugs, genetically modified feedstuffs, animal housing and restraint practices, taildocking, dehorning and castration and even the animals themselves as being on the “attack” list.
In some cases, it is a food marketing strategy, according to Etherton. Food processors and retailers try to differentiate products based on technologies and practices used in food production to scare consumers.
Another technique is to feature absence claims, such as those advertising milk that is rbST free. As an example, Etherton said a consumer is faced with three general choices when they go to the dairy case in their local supermarket: conventionally produced milk, milk labeled as not receiving rbST and organic labeled milk.
“Milk is milk,” he said. “There is no difference between rbST milk and rbST-free milk; hormone-free milk does not exist and there is no way to prove the difference. The FDA and several other independent organizations have deemed milk from cows treated with rbST to be safe for consumption.”
He added that attempts to differentiate foods based on technologies and management practices used in production when no differences exist is misleading and creates confusion for the consumers.
“Consumers often make purchase decisions ahead of the facts,” he said. “We need to make sure that when they are making decisions, they are informed decisions.”
And, if concerns over consumers’ perceptions of technology weren’t enough, farmers also continue to face threats from activist groups, according to Etherton. Animal rights and eco-extremism groups are among the FBI’s single greatest domestic terrorist threats.
“These groups are organized and well funded, they need to be visible and they need to have a cause,” he said.
Producers need to get involved, Etherton added. “You need to tell your story.”