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Agriculture industry must serve consumers, address challenges to provide food

Written by Saige

“Plant health, animal health, environmental health and human health are all inter-related,” USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Sonny Ramaswamy says. “The only way we’re going to be able to secure our future is by focusing on all of these.” 

For sustainability, Ramaswamy says farmers must be concerned about three things – productivity, ecological footprint and profitability.

“Farmers have to be able to produce more things using fewer inputs,” he says. “If all of the innovation, however, doesn’t support profitability for our farmers, we might as well close shop and go home.”

“All the greatest inventions and discoveries made by professors, PhD students and more means nothing at all if it doesn’t take profitability into account,” Ramaswamy emphasizes. “The flip side of that is we have to have consumers, as well.” 

Consumer perspective

Consumers consider access to food, affordability and nutrition when making food choices.

Across the U.S., food deserts are present, where Americans don’t have easily accessible food. 

“Easy access to food often comes from the local 7/11 or McDonalds, which gives 1,300 calories or more per meal,” he described, noting food also has to be nutritionally sufficient to ensure needs are being met. 

For children specifically, the first 1,000 days of growth are critical, and in area with food deserts, American children see some of the same nutritional deficiencies as African children in very poor countries. 

“We have to ensure the innovations we make will nutritionally help people develop and grow,” he says. 

Ecological footprint

Another component to the conversation is the ecological footprint of food and agriculture, which is “one of the most intensely expensive ecological propositions for us,” says Ramaswamy. 

Almost one-fifth of the energy consumed is in food, he says. 

“We’ve got to cut the ecological footprint by at least 50 percent,” he comments.  

A variety of research giants across the globe on working on reducing the ecological footprint of the agriculture industry, according to Ramaswamy, who says, “Everybody has a stake in this matter, but unless we set our minds to wanting to do it, we’re not going to get there.” 

Low-hanging fruit

Helping to protect agriculture’s future extends beyond the use of genomics, drones, robotics and other technologies, Ramaswamy says, highlighting food waste and food loss as big challenges.

“Globally, in developing countries, one-third to one-half of food is lost before the dinner table,” he says. “In countries like America, Canada and western Europe, one-third to one-half of food is lost after the dinner table.”

The Economic Research Service says, in America, the enemy is Americans themselves, who collectively waste 131 billion pounds of food each year, which constitutes 1,200 calories of food per man, woman and child each day. 

“An average adult needs about 2,100 calories to thrive – not just to survive, and 1,200 calories is a bit more than half of the caloric need we have.” 

He emphasizes simple efforts that can be made to reduce food waste and food loss. Notably, Ramaswamy pointed to sell by and best by dates as important  for consumers to pay attention to. 

At the same time, when it comes to produce, Ramaswamy says that every time a consumer touches a piece of produce, germs are deposited on the fruit or vegetable, which can accelerate degradation. 

Portion control can also alleviate food waste. 

“We leave a lot of food on our plates, too, which contributes to the 131 billion pounds of food waste,” he says. “That’s like taking the cash from our pockets and throwing it in the garbage.”

Innovation

Further, Ramaswamy says, “We really need innovations from individuals to address food waste, as well.”

For example, Ramaswamy highlighted innovation from students at the University of Maryland, who came up with the idea to take food and vegetables disposed by grocery stores because they were soft or bruised and turning it into “ugly juice.”

“We don’t know what’s in there, but it tastes so good, we consume it,” he says. 

Fuel can also be make from food sources, as well. 

Biodiesel can be created from used French fry oil and more. 

“It’s not only on the production side that we need innovation but on the other side, as well,” Ramaswamy says.

However, Ramaswamy cautions Americans to be certain actions don’t have unintended consequences. 

“We need to pay attention to unintended consequences,” he says. 

At the end of the day, however, Ramaswamy says it is important to always remember profitability before taking action.

“Farm incomes the last five years or so have been very depressed, both in America and globally,” Ramaswamy says. “A lot of farmers are leaving the industry.” 

Path forward

Despite challenges, Ramaswamy sees a path forward for the future of American agriculture.

“For a long time, everything we did was observational,” he describes. “In the last three decades or so, we switched to informational science. Today, we are on the threshold of it predictive science. We should be able to predict how many pounds of meat or milk a cow will produce or how many bushels a corn plant will product.”

Opportunities for innovation exist throughout the entire supply chain, he adds, from the farm to the trash can.

Ramaswamy adds, “We need smart minds to help us think this through.”

Ramaswamy presented at the 2017 Ag BioSciences Innovation Summit, held in Indiana.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..