The future of food and sustainability is high technology
Feeding the growing food demands of an increasing world population will require even better science and technology, one of the "giants of sustainable agriculture" told a crowd of 400 students and others at the first University of Nebraska Heuermann Lecture in Lincoln in early October. "It will take political will and farming skill for the world to solve its coming problems with food security and climate change," according to M.S. Swaminathan.
Swaminathan has been called the father of India's Green Revolution, which took his native country from the world's largest food deficit to self-sufficiency in grain in just over 20 years. He said the Green Revolution which so succeeded yesterday must evolve into an "EverGreen Revolution" tomorrow, emphasizing not just periodic improvement, but perpetual improvement.
Key to that sustainable growth without environmental depletion, said the world reknowned plant geneticist who was given the university's Willa Cather Medal in recognition of service to humanity at the lecture, is publicly supported technological research and innovation.
“Predictions are that in the next 40 years, the world's population will require a doubling of food production globally,” said Nebraska vice president of agriculture and natural resources Ronnie Green. “How we'll produce that increased food supply affects everyone. People need sound information to make thoughtful, well-informed decisions on what they'll support and why."
What kind of concurrent improvement can be made in food production and environmental protection by such technology? Here are a few current examples:
The fact is proven that using farm technology helps sustain the environment by requiring less land be planted to crops to feed people and livestock. Selling food as safer or greener because it’s raised without such technology risks being seen not as supporting true sustainability, but as mere “greenwashing.”
The tragic death of two farm hands in early September that resulted when the winds shifted while they were burning pasture, trapping them by their own fire, raised a perrenial question in the state: Why do farmers purposely set fire to huge swaths of native rangeland every fall and spring?
Fire is a natural tool that's as old as the praries. Here are some of the benefits we find when ranchers use controlled, planned burning:
It improves the grass. When we burn off pastures at the right time using "prescribed burns," it improves what may appear to be perfectly good grassland by removing the invasive species of brush that are actually unnatural invaders and lead to less vigorous stands. The rich mulch that annual prairie grasses naturally produce create a natural growth medium that makes conditions right for woody species of non-prairie shrubs, brushes and trees to germinate. Over time, without fires that naturally occurred over history due to lightening strikes, those woody plants would progressively invade and eventually dominate tallgrass prairie. A single, planned burn at just the right time kills those invasive species without harming the grass.
It reduces, even eliminates, our need to use less natural controls. Without use of fire, ranchers have to resort to other tools like herbicides and mechanical brush removal, both of which carry the potential to pollute the environment and increase the carbon footprint of grass management.
It makes cattle more productive. Removing the competing woody plants and improving the grass improves the cattle grazing on it in three ways. First, removing the competition for sunlight, water and soil nutrients makes the grass stronger, healthier and more nutritious. So cattle get better nutrition bite for bite. Second, it reduces the brush back to its nutrients, freeing them up for use by the grass. And third, in addition to those improvements in individual plants, removing the brush also helps us use management tools that make the cattle herd graze the whole pasture more uniformly. That improved grazing distribution makes the entire pasture more productive.
It improves wildlife habitat. We know that in addition to lightning strikes, prairie fires were also started intentionally by the early plains indians. That effort to attract game into their hunting areas showed they understood what we have likewise learned, that controlled fire is actually good for wildlife. By maintaining the prairies in a state as close to the natural ecosystem that evolved, we help provide the most suitable home possible for game and non-game species of wildlife and birds.
It improves safety. The tragic loss of the farmers notwithstanding, regular controlled rangeland burns actually improve overall public safety, by reducing the amount of tinder allowed to build up and pose a fire hazard during dry summers.
New cooking guidelines issued in May by the nation's food-safety agency says pork is now safe when cooked to an internal temperature of just 145 degrees, followed by a three-minute rest period. The new recommended temperature is a significant 15 degrees less than the 160 degrees previously recommended and believed for a century or more to be necessary to kill potentially dangerous parasites.
The change in cooking recommendations recognizes two realities of modern pork farming. First, on average, most common cuts of pork are 16 percent leaner than they were just 20 years ago. That reduced fat level has been a boon for making pork attractive to modern fat-averse consumers. But, it has left today’s pork less forgiving (read: tough and dry) when cooked to the traditional 160 degrees. This revised standard now permits consumers to spare some moisture in pork cuts by leaving it slightly underdone.
Second, the willingness of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to relax the urge to overcook even in the face of continual news reports about food borne illness outbreaks is testament to the safety margin in pork produced by the modern food system. That’s a sentiment that may strike some consumers as contradictory to conventional wisdom. It flies in the face of the current sentiment that small, outdoor, free-range, traditional farming is the most safe means of raising livestock. It’s a sentiment that’s wrong, according to University if Minnesota veterinarian and food borne disease specialist Peter Davies.
Because of the rise of Internet blogging and social networking tools, Davies writes in the February issue of the academic journal Foodborne Pathogens and Disease, “misinformation in public discourse has achieved [globally epidemic] potential.” That Internet sphere of misinformation often indicts modern, intensive, confinement pig raising as a food safety hazard. But in fact, Davies’ review of the evidence shows the opposite to be true.
''Eating pork from free-range farms compared to large commercial farms leaves you an estimated 80 times more likely to catch trichinosis.'
The disease trichinosis (the parasite targeted by yesteryear’s high pork cooking temperature recommendations) is a case in point, he argues. In the late 1800s, eating pork infected with the microscopic worm was documented to have sickened around 8,000 and killed more than 500 people in Germany alone, leading to one of the modern era’s first agricultural trade wars. As late as the 1940s in this country—when most pigs were still raised in small lots and outdoors— trichinosis was still known to result in 400 reported illnesses and 10 to 15 deaths per year.
Yet, by 2006, by which time 99 to 99.5 of every 100 hogs were being raised in so-called “factory farm” conditions, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control was reporting only about 14 cases of trichinosis per year, and zero deaths. Further, only around 1.5 of those cases per year were attributable to eating pork—the majority instead owed to eating undercooked bear meat and other wild game. Of the pork related cases, Davies cites, 60 percent were blamed on pork from “home-raised or direct-from-farm” pigs.
So, if you do the math, Davies calculates, eating pork from the nation’s half million to three-quarters of a million small and heritage farms, compared to eating pork from the 100 million commercially raised pigs, means you stand about an 80 times higher risk of catching trichinosis from small-farm pork than large commercial-farm pork.
Although it’s one of the less delicate aspects of pig farming that the official pork promoters don’t like to talk about in public, the fact is pigs are natural scavengers, and they’re natural meat-eaters. Infection with the parasite that causes trichinosis has been documented in more than 150 species of mammals, Davies notes, and free-ranging pigs are known to eat most if not all, given the chance. Modern, enclosed, hygienic, rodent-proofed barns, combined with good veterinary medical care, have virtually excluded the risk of transmitting Trichinella into the pig population from natural carriers.
“It is inevitable the pigs with outdoor access will be at greater risk of Trichinella infection due to exposure to wildlife….,” he says. “It is irrefutable that modern swine production systems, including regulated feeding practices and improved management and rodent control have practically eliminated the risk of infection with Trichinella in commercial pork in the United States….”
Labeling foods based on the methods we farmers use (and don't use) gives health-conscious consumers a broader range of product choice, even as it offers you added high-margin product lines. However, one new study suggest any added margin of non-rBst and organic niche milk may not begin to cover the demand hit they could to the remainder of staples in your dairycase. It suggests they may actually be reducing overall profitability by turning shoppers away from the conventionally raised products next to them – even the whole department.
The study, reported in November 2009’s American Journal of Agricultural Economics, tested 148 grad students and staff at New York’s Cornell University, asking them first to taste test and then to bid the price they’d be willing to pay for a quart of three kinds of milk: conventionally produced, rBST-free and organic.
Traditional market research asking consumers their willingness to pay for traits like hormone-free and antibiotic-free tend to ignore the demand affects of competing conventional products, said the authors. So to try to assess that confounding factor, they varied the order in which they presented the different milk types to the participants. They also gave them handouts containing nutrition information for each flight of milk only as it was offered. They were careful to ensure the nutrition information was identical for conventional, rBST-free and organic milk, explaining the products differed only by production process.
When the consumers’ stated willingness to pay for each milk type was viewed without regard to order, the result mirrored what other studies have found: The average willingness to pay was $1.03 for skim milk produced conventionally, $1.06 for skim milk produced without rBST, and $1.40 for skim milk produced organically—a typical marketplace premium. However, when the research controlled for the order in which the milks were presented, the results were sobering.
COULD YOU BE CUTTING YOUR PRICE BY HALF?
Presenting conventionally produced milk as the last alternative—in effect as the fall-back standard fare once the “premium” raised-without products were sampled—led the study participants to drastically discount their willingness to pay for that conventional milk. The bid price for conventional milk fell from $1.28 when presented first to only 61¢ when presented last—a cut of more than 50 percent. The study authors believe this mirrors the grocery: Where consumers are aware of all product choices, they discount values within the choice range.
And it gets worse.
When the researchers averaged the overall willingness to pay for all milk types, the average price was $1.22 for participants who sampled conventional milk first. For those given the conventional milk last, though, the overall bid price for all milk types was only 90¢—a statistically significant decrease of more than 26 percent for the whole category.
“...the introduction of milk labeled as being rBST-free or organic could have a much greater influence than simply reducing [willingness to pay] for conventional milk,” they said. “The availability of rBST-free and organic milk could reduce the demand for all types of milk.”
Whether the same phenomenon can be expected to occur with other “raised without” products like antibiotic-free isn’t clear, since the study did not test specifically for that. However, it may be a safe assumption.
“The larger stigma effect of organic compared with rBST-free milk on conventional milk is intuitive, since organic milk is free of more than rBST, having additional claims of being pesticide and antibiotic free,” they wrote.
Source: Kanter C, Messer KD, Kaiser HM. Does Production Labeling Stigmatize Conventional Milk? Amer J Agr Econ. 2009 Nov;91(4):1097–1109.
Dr. John Waddell, a veterinarian from Sutton who specializes in consulting with pig farmers, is also a past president of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians and is active in translating complex animal-agriculture scientific issues to pet veterinarians and non-veterinarians. We asked him for his take on the recurring claims in the media that Congress should prohibit "overusing antibiotics" in animal farming, and the issue with "80 percent" of U.S. antibiotics being used in the daily feed of farm animals.
First, let's start with a little fact check. That claim that 80 percent (first it was 70 percent, now it's grown to 80 percent) of all antibiotics in this country are used just to make animals grow faster comes from an inflated 10-year-old estimate circulated by a Boston environmental activist group that USA Today once called the “greenest of US environmental groups….” The group actively lobbies against numerous social issues including carbon emissions, SUVs, biotechnology and the war in Iraq, arguing we should save the planet by all cutting down our consumption of energy, housing, travel and meat, among others.