What’s in the food on your table? Where did it come from? How was it grown? Tom Martin talks with Nancy Cox, dean of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment.
Q: How is agriculture responding to consumer expectations of all kinds of information about food?
A: Consumers are very interested in all aspects of the healthfulness of food. If it’s derived from an animal, for example, was the animal handled well, sustainably, humanely? So the food industry that’s connected to the university and scientific community has a lot of challenges in explaining the advantages of their food stuffs and what is healthy and what’s not proven to be healthy.
Q: Has agriculture gotten the message?
A: Farmers have well gotten the message about consumer preferences. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with the information required by a consumer. There are all kinds of new labeling techniques and tracing technologies such that a consumer can know what farm their food stuff came from, and the farmers that are on the leading edge are providing that identity.
We have seen so many more local farmers producing food for grocery stores and institutions within Kentucky. There’s been a huge local food movement associated with that.
Q: It’s very easy for consumers to make demands of farming and agriculture, but responding to those demands and expectations can be very difficult. Is science — with its innovations and technologies — making it easier for the farmer to overcome these challenges?
A: Yes. I think that the more information available on both the farmer end and on the consumer end helps. We’re talking about a local food market that caters to the individual needs of a very highly sophisticated consumer.
Q: Never before has so much data been available to the farmer. Is this making a big difference in efficiencies along the food chain from farm to table?
A: Absolutely. The availability of data and the relative inexpensiveness of getting that to the farmer really does offer a lot of opportunities to reduce the risk of farming because if you can predict soil moisture, if you can maintain information on where in your pasture or your crop field is the best soil and what needs more nutrients, you can really get efficiencies of production.
You have so many sensors now — and the internet of things. You can have an irrigation system, for example, that only irrigates if the soil moisture goes beyond a certain point, so you can be a lot more efficient. Likewise, you can analyze consumer preferences and the next big thing on that end, as well. So sensing agronomic needs as well as interpreting consumer behavior are afforded improvements because of the data that’s available to us even on our phones.
Q: There seems to be widespread agreement that food production must increase substantially to accommodate world population growth while at the same time minimizing environmental impact. It sounds like a tall order.
A: It is a tall order. We’re producing more food on less land than 150 years ago. 150 years ago, a farmer fed his or her own family. Today, 155 or more humans are fed by each farmer in this country. Sustainability, environmental quality, wildlife habitat are considerations.
Farming practices have greatly improved in recent decades due to agricultural research such that we can minimize the fertilizer needed for optimum plant growth. We can protect the streams and water sources from runoff of fertilizer or pesticides. If we have cattle out in pastures, we can fence them off from the streams. So while agricultural productivity has greatly increased, we’ve also been paying much more attention to the environment along the way.
Q: Another major concern among consumers revolves around genetically modified organisms. Can you touch on this and tell us where the science stands today?
A: Certainly. The concept of genetically modified organisms first came about when genes were inserted into plants for a certain characteristic. One of the most famous ones of those is Roundup Ready soybeans. A gene would be inserted into the soybeans that would make them resistant to Roundup so you could spray those soybeans with Roundup and it would kill all the weeds and preserve the soybeans. It was a great agronomic production practice. It made you use less herbicide because you could control the weeds better.
That said, consumers had a very negative reaction to the concept of altering the genes in an organism that they or animals were going to eat. The technology has generally been proven to be very safe, but it’s a big challenge for the consumer to understand that the way scientists do.
The whole GMO story has been a lesson in the divide between the scientific community and the consumer and I think it taught the scientific food production communities a big lesson about not developing technologies that were unacceptable to consumers.
Now, we don’t just insert a new gene into a plant, we cause that plant to change its own genes to make a different characteristic. There’s a technology called CRISPR. It’s not GMO anymore, but we’re still altering genes. How are consumers reacting to that? So far, a lot better. But it’s not that different from the original GMO technology, which was not that different from the way we’ve always done plant breeding.
Q: Is the management of food waste a topic that gets attention at the College of Ag, Food and Environment at UK?
A: Food waste is very important. Up to 30 percent of food is typically wasted in this country. Several different aspects of this are practiced within our college. One is that we have a Campus Kitchen, which is a national organization of students who want to affiliate and reduce food waste. The Campus Kitchen at UK has about 400 to 500 students that volunteer to repackage dining hall and other kinds of food. It really makes a difference to reduce food waste.
Q: The world population is projected to grow from roughly seven billion today to close to 10 billion by 2050. How do these projections play into what future agricultural professionals are going to need to know?
A: It’s a daunting challenge as we see farmland generally decreasing over the world due to population growth. At the same time, to be able to produce enough food for that growing population, we are dependent on a lot of research to figure out that drought-resistant plant or that super efficient goat or cow or fish. We have depended on the progress of research to get where we are today.
The growth in agricultural production as a result of research is slacking off. We’re not funding our research as much as we used to. China is about double the United States in investment in agricultural research, which is encouraging if you’re thinking about the worldwide population, but it is daunting to think about the US not being the major innovator in agricultural production and not being the major funder of agricultural research.
That said, the productivity that we’ve experienced in the last 150 years should continue at some rate and we should be able to figure out solutions for the world’s population, but it’s not an easy task and it is daunting to think about 2050 and 10 billion people in the world.
Tom Martin’s Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader’s Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on Kentucky.com. The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.