Ag conference provides food for thought

In problem solving, it has been said that asking the right questions is important, because you aren’t going to get anywhere by asking the wrong ones.

By all indications, the first-ever Indiana Governor’s Agriculture Conference recently offered some pretty good questions.

The leadoff speaker was Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund. Now what, you may ask, does someone from the World Wildlife Fund have to say to Indiana agricultural leaders?

Let me tell you that his presentation did not include even one photo of a cute, fuzzy animal. Nor did he scold anyone in the room for their agricultural practices.

Instead, data described how much land is used for agriculture globally and, if you take out water bodies, mountains, cities and other lands not suitable for agriculture, there isn’t much land left onto which agriculture might expand its footprint.

Given an expanding global middle class that expects to eat higher on the food chain, and a world population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050, agriculture will need to become more productive. This is common knowledge to anyone who might be paying attention, but Clay offered further observations.

One is that big agriculture and small agriculture can and should co-exist without rancor; we need both, and each has its own job to do. In an article in The Guardian, Clay wrote that large and small production systems “both have merits as we strive to increase food production and preserve biodiversity on a finite planet. We must focus on what we want to achieve, not so much how to achieve it.”

Clay also weighed in on genetically modified crops (GMOs). Based on the realities of global population and available land, he said, well-selected GMOs have a place in a food system that must produce more. How crops might be developed and vetted for best-fit and safe use is an ongoing conversation.

He also commented on the importance of sustainability in agricultural systems, large and small. He left us with this question: “On a finite planet, should consumers have a choice about sustainable products, or should all products be sustainable?”

The Governor’s Conference offered several thoughtful, data-driven presentations. It was great to see so many agriculture leaders in the room, hearing from organizations and businesses working globally, and looking toward the future.