USFRA: Why Nature May Need Technology to Help Feed Our Growing World
The food industry is undergoing a major transformation, but while food companies often serve as the face of this so-called ‘food revolution,’ the source of some of the most significant changes isn’t the C-suite, but rather our farms.
Comprised of more than 100 farmer- and rancher-led organizations and agricultural partners representing virtually all aspects of agriculture, the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) is working to tell the story of the sustainability initiatives unfolding on farms across the United States, and engage both consumers and food companies alike in a dialogue about how food is best grown and raised today.
While some of the methods the Alliance supports will likely incite debate within the sustainability community, Sustainable Brands had a thought-provoking discussion with CEO Randy Krotz to learn more about how the USFRA is aiming to bridge the gap between consumers, the food industry and farmers, and what methods the ag industry is finding crucial (including GMOs) to helping feed nine billion people.
Even the most responsible agriculture practices have impacts on the land — what is the USFRA’s role in helping reduce impacts and creating a more sustainable industry?
Randy Krotz: When we got started, we were very focused on trying to deal with the gap that exists between farmers and consumers about how our food is grown and raised, and how people perceive this process – especially around GMOs, animal antibiotics and hormones, crop inputs and animal welfare. Two years ago, we brought sustainability into the organization as an umbrella issue covering these four areas of focus, our pillars.
Fifty or sixty years ago, people stopped coming to the farm to get their food, and farmers, to some degree, stopped communicating regularly with consumers. If we had turned that switch back on 25 years ago, instead of five or 10 years ago, we’d be in a much better place today.
We try to take farmers and ranchers where they haven’t been before so that their voices can be heard in that core arena, where it has been missing for the last 50 years. Our focus has always been on improving the soil, air, water and habitat around our farms, but we haven’t always done a good job of keeping consumers and the food industry current on what we’re doing. And that’s kind of come back on us as a negative on some occasions. Food companies have justifiably taken advantage of that lack of communication on our part and created a niche market around sourcing because they source a product that they differentiate based on an absence claim.
What we’re trying to help consumers and food companies understand is that when you ask a farmer not to, for example, grow GMOs, you’re actually asking them to be less sustainable.
Can you elaborate on that?
RK: There are some things that GMOs allow us to do on a corn, soybean or sugar beet farm that we can’t do without GMOs, and that impacts our ability to maintain the environment, water and soil. With GMOs, we’re able to till the soil less or not at all, which helps prevent the loss of soil. If we were using another program, we’d have to use cultivation to control the weeds and we don’t have to do that with GMOs. In a GMO program, you apply herbicide over the weeds; the crop is protected but the weeds die. So, you have a way to control your weeds without any disruption.
GMOs with herbicide protection are just one kind of GMO. Another type has an insect correction in the plant, such as BT, which actually protects the plant from insects. Our Kansas farm is a great example of how this works: We used to have to apply multiple applications of insecticides in a year to control various insects, but now we don’t actually have to apply any insecticides at all because the protection is embedded in the plant. There is also work being done to develop a similar model for herbicides so the protection can be internalized in the crop rather than applied topically.
We do a lot of consumer and farmer research that is focused on sustainability. You learn so much, because one definition of sustainability is so hard, right We recently talked to 1,000 consumers and did four focus groups — two in Manhattan, one in Los Angeles and one in Phoenix — asking that if given the opportunity to talk to a farmer, what would they ask about how they grow and raise food related to sustainability. The overwhelming areas of focus were water and soil, and 53 percent of people wanted to know if farmers actually eat the food they raise.
We also did focus groups with farmers, which was almost as interesting from a standpoint of what farmers are already doing that is sustainable, but to some degree they just look at it as being financially efficient and effective on their farms. So, a gap really does exist.
The information you gather from the focus groups and surveys — how do you use this information to inform what you do?
RK: The main thrust of the research I just described was to prepare farmers to be able to engage consumers. We’ve spent a year working with a ‘train the trainer’ program to go out and speak to farm groups around the country, showing them what language consumers were most comfortable with and what language can be used to help consumers understand what we’re doing on the farm.
The research we just did was to look at whether farmers and ranchers think food companies are qualified to tell them how to sustainably produce food, and nearly 70 percent of them said no. So, that’s some of the problem here. One example is when you have Danone saying ‘don’t feed the cows that produce the milk for our yogurt GMO corn’ because that’s part of their sustainability pledge. But to go away from GMO corn can reduce a farmer’s sustainability.
There is a side of sustainability that gets missed because of companies’ desires to gain a market presence with a sourcing claim. Sometimes the environmental impact of that sourcing claim is negative in comparison to how a farmer might normally produce that crop or animal. GMOs can help reduce tillage, water consumption and the use of insecticides. And you’re adding costs to farmers asking them to control their pests in other ways — we use GMOs because they are a cost-effective way to reduce inputs. If you stop using GMOs, you’re now vulnerable to three or four different insects, for example. The pressure of those insects in a given year will also vary — you may have to treat, you may not. To ensure operating costs are still manageable if GMOs are not used, a farmer looks at this and says, ok, can you pay me a premium over the market, which helps cover additional costs, such as identity preservation and more inputs.
And that’s what our whole straight talk program is about, trying to help food companies have a very candid conversation with farmers. We want to hear from them and we want them to be successful without having tools taken away from farmers.
We try so hard to be production process neutral, but we’re also a pro-technology organization because a lot of this technology allows us to address some of the needs that the environment has and some of the continual improvements that we want to make. There’s no question that agriculture is the most deeply engaged industry there is with the environment. There’s hundreds of millions of acres of agriculture across the U.S. and we have to be the ones driving sustainability — and not because food companies think they can get us there. We have an interest in being sustainable. You’ve got to be an environmentalist to be a farmer and be successful. You have to work with the bees on your property, the birds on your property, wildlife as a whole, and it all rolls back to keeping your soil and water healthy, the air clean. We have a big role to play there.
What are some of the technologies farmers are using to reduce impacts?
RK: Technology has changed the way we are able to monitor livestock today in terms of water consumption, feed consumption and keeping animals healthy and comfortable. The technologies that we use for climate control, whether it’s in a dairy barn or hog facility, are helping us keep animals comfortable and healthy like we’ve never done before. For example, when the temperature varies a little bit, the technology opens windows or rolls down curtains — and all of this can be done from an app on your phone.
Another example: I recently watched my brother plant corn and as he was going down the field with a 24-row planter and the field was beginning to narrow, the planter knew where, through GPS, he had already applied seed, fertilizer and herbicide. It knew when he was beginning to overlap on the rows that had already been planted and shut the nozzles off. Five years ago, those overlap areas would have gotten a double dosing of seed, as well as fertilizer and herbicide. What today’s technology does is ensure that we’re not making those kinds of overlaps.
Buffer strips and what we’re doing to understand land better, such as soil mapping, are also helping. There are some soils that don’t need as much fertilizer because they just won’t perform, no matter how much you put on them. So, we may put no fertilizer or a lower dose because we know it won’t produce crop.
How can technology be used to protect biodiversity And how do you view the role of technology in the growing organic market?
RK: There is certainly technology used in organic production, as well, such as the planning technology around seed placement.
In terms of biodiversity, it’s something we are all focused on and I think it’s fair to say that a more precise application of anything that ends in -cide (pesticide, fungicide, herbicide) aids in the biodiversity of a farm. In some corn production, when you use an insecticide, that can affect beneficial insects, so the use of GMOs can eliminate the impact on beneficials, such as lacewing and ladybug beetles.
I also think that having more buffer strips – the waterways and the increased amount of grass that we have around our fields now to control the water as it leaves — all of that helps with the biodiversity of our farms.
In California, after years of drought, there’s been so much rain that they have flooding. Now they’re trying to figure out how to use those flood waters to recharge their aquifer. And when you think about the biodiversity of your farm, having that water on or near your farm increases the water fowl population. There is a farmer in the San Joaquin Valley who has owl huts all over his farm — he had a lot of tomatoes and some birds can be very damaging to tomatoes, so he’s using the owls to manage the avian population on his farm, but it’s still part of the habitat that we work to create on our farms.
There would certainly be implications for how and what we eat, but wouldn’t eliminating -cides entirely benefit biodiversity the most?
It’s definitely a relevant question. But we wouldn’t be able to grow enough food to feed all of the people. If you eliminate some of these applications, you could argue that you won’t be able to control things like diseases, weeds or competition and you may not be able to grow certain crops like wheat or corn.
For corn, we used to have to apply as much as four applications of pesticides to control insects. Now, with GMO corn, we don’t have to apply insecticides at all. And the beneficial insects are helping control pests for us, too. It’s a story consumers don’t always get to hear.
The USFRA supports GM crops as a way for farms to become more sustainable. Can you expand on this stance?
Both science and consumer concerns come into play here, as well as the role of food companies in informing and educating consumers about the technology.
Financial matters drive a lot of the decisions about what seeds farmers choose, but there is also the piece that says that certain crops, such as papaya, can’t be grown in the United States anymore if we don’t use GMO papaya. There’s also the health piece of GMOs, with a couple of crops such as rice with Vitamin A and high oleic soybeans presenting a tremendous opportunity for health benefits. But this has been much slower to market than what we had originally hoped because of consumer concern.
Keep in mind that the USFRA still believes that pesticides are important, and need to be available and used properly and precisely, and that organic is a viable production process; but we really look at GMOs as a core piece of our environmental stewardship and our focus here is really doing more with less.
On a whole, GMOs are allowing us to use less pesticide and water, while still producing healthy plants and improving yield. There’s some great research at Purdue Universitythat shows that we’d have to plant 21 percent more corn and 17 percent more soybeans today than we do now if we didn’t have GMOs.
And there’s no question about the science — you have 117 Nobel Laureates and 300 organizations across the world who say they’re safe and that the technology is important for the future of food production. It’s the one way you can change the expression of protein in a plant.
To your point about papaya: Why is it better to have GMO varieties of non-native fruits and vegetables than importing non-GMO varieties?
From a farmer’s perspective, we want to have a US consumer consuming our food that we produce. And when you go to a non-GMO crop that comes from a foreign country, you really have no control over — or have an idea of — what’s been applied to that food. There have been cases where organic wheat has come into the US from abroad that a food company was paying a premium for and when it was tested, it turned out to not be organic.
So, I think understanding the benefits of GMOs and where the technology can take us in the future in growing crops domestically has tremendous value. If you’re producing tomatoes, you don’t want foreign tomatoes brought into the country. It’s your price competition. So, I think farmers are, justifiably, market-focused and generally speaking want to keep our products domestically consumed as much as possible.
What is your main message for food companies?
We’re really trying to help companies understand that we appreciate as marketers ourselves what those niche markets mean to farmers and to food companies. What we’re advocating is for food companies to take a long-term look at the marketplace instead of a short-term one, because we want food companies to understand the implications of what they’re asking for when they ask us to make certain modifications.
We’ve also made a number of 3D videos that really attempt to put you on the farm. It’s very common for a food company to say that they have a great relationship with their farmers or will put a farmer or rancher in a commercial, and that is sometimes a false representation of a food company’s real understanding of how food is grown and raised. Food companies don’t always have an in-depth understanding of that, but we can help bridge that gap. We’re really trying to help them more broadly understand what is going on the farm.