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Defeating a modern myth to attain food security

The theme of food security has never been more topical than it is today. With the dazzling figures for 2050 looming over us, many ask how to feed planet Earth by that date. Acquiring focus and knowing what’s important could be a good start.

By Jeff Simmons, president, Elanco

In October 2011, the world's population shot past the 7-billion mark on its way to reaching 9 billion by the year 2050. But the steepest part of the growth curve is happening now. Between now and 2020, we'll experience the fastest growth of the global middle class in the history of man. The growing wave of food insecurity threatens more than 1 billion people around the world. That means, today, we are at a crossroads.

We have to produce more, and we need to do it with less. A quick look at world headlines brings the impact of these realities to life.

  • Riots broke out in 30 countries to protest high food prices in 2008, and again in 2011.
  • Avian influenza swept Mexico's egg industry in 2012, doubling egg prices and sparking a national crisis.
  • Egg prices in the EU skyrocketed in January 2012, when a ban on chicken cages pushed many egg producers out of business – egg prices in the UK quadrupled almost overnight.
  • The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and FAO expect beef prices to rise 11%, pork to climb 17% and sheep meat to increase 4% above 2009-2011 levels in the coming decade.

 

More food

By 2050, we will need 70% more food and according to the UN FAO, 70% of it must come from innovation. Will we allow this grave to continue and grow, or will we tackle this problem with solutions that already exist? Innovative solutions exist today to help meet food needs, but consumers don't want technology used in food production. Right?

To better understand consumer opinions on technology use in food production, Elanco instituted the International Consumer Attitudes Study (ICAS) in 2010, a review of more than two dozen reports and studies about what consumers think about their food and how they shop. To be included, studies must have used unaided, or open-ended, questions to minimise bias. Consumer spending data was also included to contrast attitudes with actual behaviours. That review was recently updated, analysing 34 studies completed in the ten-year span between 2004 and 2013. The research covered the opinions and habits of more than 100,000 consumers in 26 countries. The results may surprise you.

 

Cost is a major factor
We found that 95.7% of the shoppers are supportive or neutral about using innovation and technology to grow the food they eat. Just 4.1% purchase food primarily based on lifestyle factors like vegetarian/ vegan principles, support for organic systems, local food, and other ideologies. That means a shrinking minority are still working to impose its opinions and standards on others.

 

Cost rises to the top
In an effort to validate these findings, a Nielsen Omnibus survey was conducted with 13,000 households across the United States in March, 2013. A major shift emerged. When Nielsen's pollsters asked shoppers about the most important factor in their food purchasing decision – an exact repeat of a question they asked in 2010 – cost rose to the number-one spot. After two years of sluggish economic recovery, cost is now the leading factor in food purchases for 44% of the US shoppers surveyed. That's a 13% increase over its position in 2011, when cost was well behind taste in the poll. And cost was the leading factor even for shoppers with incomes up to $70,000 per year.

 

Other factors have little influence
'Some other factor', which could include concerns about organic, GMO or other variables, accounted for just 2% of the top influences on purchase decision. In the United Kingdom, the same question asked in the same timeframe showed that taste was the leading factor for British food shoppers at 42%. Cost was identified by 33%, nutrition by 21%, and 'some other factor' drove 3.27% of the shoppers' decisions.

Organic farming now accounts for 4.2% of US food sales. That's fine for markets where consumers have abundant options and the money to spend based on their ecological worldview. But on a global level, let's allow consumers around the world to make their decisions based on taste, cost and nutrition. Let's go back to using science – real science – to make decisions about individual choices as well as policy choices. Let's focus on what's important.

The most important thing to focus on: Recognising that as the population grows and demand rockets ever higher, consumers in less abundant markets also deserve choice – choices that will allow them to feed their families.
It's time to put the myth to rest and shift the dialogue toward a much more important question: How can we sustainably feed a growing world? The answer is critical and the timing is urgent.

I believe the answer revolves around technology access and choice. Access to innovation ensures three Basic Rights.

1. First, the moral right to food. I believe every child born on this Earth has the right to be fed. Technology affords a more abundant, more affordable food supply.

2. Choice, which is a consumer right. Whether it's the Chinese consumers that want to diversify their diet from grains to include animal sourced protein as their affluence grows, or if it's the American consumer that wants to choose locally grown or artisanal products, consumers have the right to a broad variety of food choices. Technology helps allow these choices.

3. Sustainability, which is environmentally right. We will not be able to feed future generations if we do so at the neglect of the very resources – the land, water and air – that sustain us. Technology allows more efficient production that's made it possible for farmers to feed more people, while consuming fewer natural resources and generating less animal waste.
For example, we need nearly a third fewer cattle to meet beef demands today than we did in 1977. Each pound of beef produced requires 14% less water and 34% less land, all while beef production generates 20% less manure than it did 30 years ago. The story is similar for every pound of pork found in the meat case. Each pound of pork produced in the United States today requires 41% less water than it did in 1959. The 'carbon footprint' for each kg of pork is 35% smaller than it was in 1959.

 

A time for action

The facts align to support a position on which we can all agree: We must commit ourselves to ensuring that a global supply of safe, affordable and abundant food can become a reality in our lifetime. And it starts with you! Every single one of us must act if we are to stop this tsunami before it drowns us all. What can you do to help eradicate hunger and while preserving our environment and our consumer right to choice?

1. Make it personal
Until you step out of your 'bubble' and see hunger up close and personal, this issue is just a bunch of statistics for someone else to solve. You don't have to travel to Africa or Brazil, as I did. I guarantee there are hungry people in your backyard. Get involved.
2.  Engage
Your network, your family and friends, food chain influencers you know and interact with. Help expose the myth. The majority of consumers are comfortable with technology use in food production. We can't be swayed by a fringe group of 1%.
3. Support
Make your voice heard. Stand ready to support the 99% of the world's citizens who want unconstrained choice and a supply of safe, affordable and wholesome food. When faced by fringe groups looking to eliminate choice or ban practices, respectfully ask them to prove their assertions using sound scientific data, which they can share with regulatory bodies.

We have a unique window of opportunity. With global protein demand on the rise, there will be a spotlight on this issue. The time to act is now, for a food secure tomorrow.

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  • Defeating a modern myth to attain food security

Jeff Simmons

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