The challenge of making nutritious, sustainable and abundant is strong enough for a nuclear family. Now mix in climate change, volatile markets and inefficient security standards along with a global population estimated to add two billion more mouths to feed in the next 25 years, and it is clear that the food crisis will become more acute. How can we fix agriculture? That is the question Chairman Norman Pearlstine put our panel: Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Richard Leach, President and CEO, World Food Program of EE. UU., Charles Sweat, President and CEO Officer, Earthbound Farm, and Craig Wilson, Vice President of Quality Assurance and Food Safety, Costco Wholesale. The conversation has been condensed and edited.
One thing that is a surprise to anyone new to the subject is the amount of food produced, but for one reason or another did not burn. Where there may be opportunities for greater efficiency?
Craig Wilson: Most people do not understand the code of the dates on food is not related to food security. These are the dates of code quality. Quality decreases with time with any given food, whether or not an item cooled. So when quality goes to a point where it is no longer salable or consumable flopped. Companies like ours donate a lot of food to local services and food banks around the world in products that are approaching that code. Look at those durations of code: Can we improve? Can we improve and continue to work with our valued suppliers?
Elisabeth Hagen: The technology is incredibly important. We want to ensure that if we are not only focusing on our technology opportunities reagents. The technology must be approached from the point of view of food security, firstly on prevention opportunities. Food must be safe before reaching consumer tables. So we have many opportunities to trace contaminated food once we know that there has been an event. That is very important to mitigate the extent of any given event. But we want to make sure they are out there right technologies to prevent pollution occurs first.
From the organizational point of view is technology friend or foe?
Charles sweat: Oh, a friend. With technology increasingly efficient and is the only way you can scale your business to generate economic value for the consumer. As recently as 15 years ago they were harvesting a lot of our lettuce by hand and knives with employees in the field. We have now developed mechanical harvesters can cut these crops. Hundreds of people came down to three or five years. Efficiency was very high, and the price went down. So technology is important in the system of food products and food security side.
Richard Leach: If you look at the 866 million people suffer from hunger, half the farmers are actually farmers, small, mostly women. And when we talk about “What do we need to increase productivity?” We’re talking about technologies that are being used in the U.S. the late 1800s-irrigation, fertilizer, roads, storage. Therefore, it can have a significant impact on productivity without a breakthrough in technology, the use of techniques that we have understood for quite some time.
Sweat: That’s also part of their conversation about population growth. Moving from rural to urban. And if you look at China, for example, there is also a demographic shift from rural areas, which are agricultural production, in cities like the middle class increases. So you’re losing that labor in the production aspects of farm country. If we have no way to increase productivity, we actually lose volume to be produced today.
The availability of information put out to the farm changed considerably in the age of smart phones everywhere. Can you see that make a big difference for the hungry?
Leach: It actually, in many ways. One is that we are seeing now farmers have access to information on crop diseases and other problems. If a problem arises in a particular part of the country, can be shared between different communities. We are also seeing in the sense that there is no access to information on prices. A person with a cell phone can access the Uganda Commodity Exchange in Chicago and find out what the price of corn and really be able to reap greater benefits from their corn crop than they would otherwise.
Wilson: There is another very interesting point when talking about the ubiquitous cell phone. We can use that for backtrace back. When we have to announce the retirement of a given element, we can call 1.4 million people per hour, with a voice message. It is a very effective way to reach people when compared to the old ways of contacting people to get urgent information about retirement.
Weather forecasting is something to pay close attention at Costco?
Wilson: We follow the sun, so to speak. When you shop at Costco, you can get Bing cherries at Christmas. So we have to understand weather patterns. We need to know that the products are coming from and time-based source. That is what we are doing today.
There has been a movement toward local agriculture, questioning the cost of moving grapes from Chile to New Jersey and so on. Do you see any comprehensive customer support for this?
Wilson: If we buy local, we will. But they have to meet the same specifications as would for a global or national supplier. For us it comes down to quality and food safety. If you are able to meet the same requirements and the same Costco (COST) specifications to be incorporated Dr. Hagen specifications, then the smaller boy to the greatest man, we’d love to buy them.
Sweat: It’s probably even truer for organic production. Consumers are looking to have that trust and confidence in how a product is made, how it is grown and how it is produced to these specifications. Looking extends our global production system; we have found things that were labeled as “organic”, not necessarily organic. We found things that were not even the same type of product as the label.
Wilson: Dr. Hagen has changed the way the inspection system for food security has worked in the past two years. And from someone who is in the trenches every day, this regulatory change is so refreshing. I can build providers have valued an item and meet a quality specification, microbial, and regulators can not do that yet. But they can come out and say: “This is what we must do to avoid this.” And then we can support that and push that forward. So there is a growing industry regulatory relationship being built, not only with Costco, but in all areas where food security is a focus. Nobody gets up in the morning and goes to work and says, “Well, you know, I’m going to make someone sick today, because I’m going to do this.”
What kind of decisions must be made regarding the issues of transparency and public warning to a problem?
Hagen: Regulators have legal standards that must be met if we are to recall a product or use our authority to seize and detain a product that the company refused to recall. But it is not particularly useful, I think, to the general consumer to receive a notice from the government that says: “We believe there is a problem with ground beef.” You know, there are billions of servings of ground beef sold in this country every year. And people in the world of retail and wholesale sometimes have the ability to succeed and notify people before we can be able to make an official statement.
Wilson: Last month there was an outbreak of salmonella horrible. Salmon is produced in two places: Holland and Greece. I was notified on Monday night. At the end of Monday night, got in touch with all the people who had bought the salmon and said it could be a problem. No disease-nothing in the U.S. We’ve gone through the research process. Two weeks later, it was confirmed that the salmon sent to the U.S. was excluded from any withdrawal. And so I sent a letter out at the time for our members to know that they, in fact, the salmon were not included. So it’s very easy to pull the trigger on these things because you’re talking, in most cases, a single article.
How do you rate the U.S. involvement in working with other countries to increase productivity and quality of agricultural products?
Leach: Undoubtedly, this administration has transformed the global effort to fight hunger. Since the inaugural four-year-odd years ago to a meeting of G-8, as the president has put this issue on the table. It’s a little known fact, but what they are doing is bringing the recipient countries and the private sector. There was an ongoing effort that is very important that the Sun is called expanding movement-focused nutrition in the first 1,000 days. We know now, medical knowledge, that in the first two years of life, if a child is not well fed, do not develop properly, physical, mental, intellectual, which has a significant impact on gross domestic product of a country . And when it comes to technology, we have seen the most basic technologies transform the landscape. It used to be if you had a baby suffering from acute malnutrition would have to provide IV fluids. We now have a paste in a small bowl. You just tear off the corner, do not need to be refrigerated, put it in the mouth of a baby. And within a relatively short period, they will be strong again and able to stand.
Congress has been a partner in all this?
Leach: one hundred percent, and is completely bipartisan. I mean, is something that we as a nation can be very proud. I should not say [laughs], but the funds to hunger have increased and have remained. They have not been cut, even in a difficult economic environment.
Looking over the next two decades, with the additional power demands, food becomes more a political issue that countries try to find ways to get resources?
Leach: You will see a lot of issues around trade policy. Is increasing. As the population of Brazil, China and India and Russia continue to grow and the middle class continues to grow, the demand for food will exceed domestic production and all of them will become major importers. They begin to put pressure on food production in the U.S. Navigating Food will become much more political.
At a time when hundreds of millions of people go hungry, there are also people who are obese and who are a danger to themselves and society. Is there a role for government and for the food industry, which is different from what we’ve seen so far?
Hagen: They are large retailers in the world that actually have the ability to move the needle on this thing. Global chains have millions-billions-of customers to reduce the sodium content or cut saturated fats or decreasing portion sizes, which is not a bad thing. But there is a role for government policy, too. USDA responsible for what used to be called food stamps, SNAP program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance. Our secretary vowed: “If we are going to spend so much money to administer the national school lunch program, it better do something to improve the nutrition of school children in the United States.” But we can not do this with the policy of the government alone. This does not have to come from food companies and educators.
Sweat: I think the comment of education at the right time. I mean, when I grew up in the 70s, I had to take Home Ec to learn about my food choices and nutrition. We had to take gym classes and physical education. And these things have been on the road class now.
Fish is an important part of the diet of people 10 years out? Or are we doing a pretty good job of ending global supply will be a real shortage?
Wilson: Can we find sustainable ways to reach these wonderful seafood items that we have today? I think the answer is yes. But it will take a lot of work. It’s like being a great organic farmer. We can grow these items are very good seafood. But it takes a lot of work to do well and to hold, moved from different points around the world.
Leach: As more globalization of food production on an industrial scale with more chemicals, we have seen an increase in dead zones in the oceans and population, affecting the ecosystem and fish production, and the you have to source the fish has changed now. In the Gulf of Mexico, shrimpers have to go far offshore. So you’ve changed your industry as a whole.
Sweat: Seafood will be an essential component of long-term protein. However, the total protein in the world will have to increase. And it will have to include herbal and the animal.
Leach: The world is moving in the right direction, getting smarter, and more creative, more innovative ways to fight hunger. I think the biggest challenge is to actually follow the political will to continue the commitment of the private sector to solve these problems.
Hagen: What keeps me awake at night is the magnitude and scope of the potential risk. Families of real people forever affected by foodborne illness. Real people lose their children to contaminated food on their plates. And you know, it’s 2012. This is the United States of America. And we still have 48 million people a year who get sick from the food, one in six Americans. This is food that is grown in our fields and is about animals. So how do you stay ahead of that? We need good science and good information. We have to look at the risks as we know now, and not as the means for many years. That’s what we talk all the time in our body, reminding everyone-We have 10,000 people. Most of them are off the line somewhere physically inspecting food. Not in Washington, DC, policy. And all those people need to wake up every day and realize that there is life for families in our hands and that their work is so important.