Protecting us hungry

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caution The world population is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050. That’s not disputed. Feeding all those hungry people will require more food produced using less land and less water. That’s a fact. In fact, over the next 50 years, farmers and ranchers will have to produce more food than has been produced in the past 10,000 years combined. That’s a lot to wrap one’s mind around.

But it’s the “how do we do that” issue that was the focus of the 2014 National Institute for Animal Agriculture annual conference in early May. According to a recently released white paper from the conference, reliance on the “Precautionary Principle” could prevent the adoption of new technologies to help agriculture meet growing food demand based perceived concerns and subjective biases rather than fact and science.

The precautionary principle is a decision-making principle designed to initiate preventative action as a response to scientific uncertainty, shift the burden of proof to the proponents of a potentially harmful activity, explore alternative means to achieve the same goal, and involve stakeholders in the decision-making process. In practical terms, it’s a political tool used to block innovation.

The white paper identifies an often-quoted definition of the principle developed by a group of environmentalists in the 1990s that said “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not established scientifically…It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.” Or according to one speaker at the conference, when the principle is “selectively applied to politically disfavored technologies and conduct,” it is used as a “barrier to technological development and economic growth.”

What does this have to do with animal agriculture? Well-funded opposition is increasingly working to influence legislation and regulation, and undermine consumer confidence in food safety for genetically engineered ingredients, according to the white paper. The paper highlighted a nearly two-decades’ old effort to obtain approval for a genetically modified salmon that has been held up by activists and their attorneys based on economic and social concerns, not science. Further, the result is causing some technology companies to move overseas to places like China and Brazil.

In other words, opposition to technology – technology that could “improve food availability, lower food costs, and enhance biomedical research, treatments and production – could result in a situation where the United States is exporting our researchers and importing our food. Increasingly, opponents to technology who work to block modern agricultural advancements are protecting us hungry. While farmers and ranchers can meet the needs of today’s consumers, meeting future food demands will be impossible without innovation and technology.

So what do we do? The speakers at the conference suggest part of the solution relies replacing the precautionary principle with a focus on key performance indicators related to continuous improvement and sustainability that are “outcome based, science driven, technology neutral, and transparent.” The white paper says then those indicators should be used to help build trust among consumers in the production practices utilized by farmers and ranchers. According to the white paper, the use of sustainability key performance indicators can aid in communicating with consumers, lawmakers and regulatory agencies about the benefits of technology and help keep government decisions on new food technologies based on science, rather than fear and emotion.

The full white paper is available to be viewed on the National Institute for Animal Agriculture’s website

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Betty L. Smokov    
Steele. ND  |  May, 22, 2014 at 11:54 AM

I just read a publication from 1953 "Conquest of the Land thorugh 7,000 years by Dr. Lowdermilk wchic he did for the Soil Conservation in 1938 and 39. If anyone thinks our technology is so great, this is a good read but you can look at our country and see where we are headed. As to importing our food, we don't have to take the risk of getting contaminated junk when we can raise our own healthy produce. Maybe we don't need all the fancy foods that our neighbors to the south raise, but think about the areas we do have to raise food and how wasteful our food lunch and food abnk system is. I don't think this is a situation for the government but more the self-reliance of farmers and ranchers and their interaction to get the best food to our people. We have to be good stewards of the soil and water first, then use technology available that is safe for all man-kind and the livestock. Thanks for giving my husband and I a forum to speak in.

Bryon Hatch    
Canada  |  May, 22, 2014 at 08:31 PM

Well said ND

Tom MCKissack    
TEXAS  |  May, 24, 2014 at 10:10 AM

Good response Betty. As a rancher, I DO NOT believe the farmers and ranchers of this country are charged with feeding the world. We are charged with feeding the good folks of the USA. I believe we should be very careful with new tech and SEED. Any thing planted MUST be researched and TESTED,TESTED and TESTED again by OUTSIDE professionals not people hired by big Ag. We as stewards MUST make sure all our products are safe to eat for humans and animals, alike. We MUST NOT be seduced into producing unsafe products, pushed by a "pie in the sky" or political agenda. We are blessed with an abundance of food which we ship to whoever can afford it FOR A PROFIT. A very small amount is sent as AID by various groups and our government.

May, 28, 2014 at 10:13 AM

OK, if farmers aren't feeding the world then tell us who is. Last time I checked all that food we are eating came from some farm somewhere. It is a miracle really that we have such an abundant, safe and affordable choice of foods. If this isn't because of farmers and the work they do, then what exactly is responsible for it? And how will stifling progress do anything to feed the world as time marches on? We need practical new ideas and probably a good base of technology to grease the skids. Not everyone can drive their SUV over to their favorite upscale beanery every mealtime. You do realize feeding the world means feeding a lot of folks who are not living the same lifestyle you enjoy here in the US, right?

kansas  |  May, 28, 2014 at 03:28 PM

Thank you, Ms. Soukup, for a very well thought-out and worded insight into the challenges and road-blocks for modern agriculture in our new, global age. Especially for exposing the unscientific premises in which the "precautionary principle" is abused and exploited by anti-science, anti-modern Ag and, ultimately, anti-human advocacies in the radical environmental and animal-rights movements. As exhibited in comments from ND, TX and Canada, they have had great success in selling the fear-based theory that all commercial enterprises (aka,Big Corp) are unscrupulous, uncaring and criminally negligent destroyers of mother Gaia - and anyone who speaks on their behalf is viewed the same. The same standards and testing procedures applied to pharmaceuticals, medical procedures, structural engineering/bldg. and vehicles apply to technology & biology from "MonSatan" & Dupont, but obviously that's not good enough for the luddite foodies and profit-driven promoters of "organic" and "natural" over-priced "alternative" products driving the mostly urbanite media, public debate. We, humanity worldwide, cannot allow increasing food production to be derailed, high-jacked and stymied by fear-mongering "precautionary principles".

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