Panelists: Ag’s challenge to feed world without depleting resources

FORT COLLINS – Crop farmers and protein producers indeed can feed a growing global population, though how to do so without straining the earth’s resources remains a central concern, agricultural experts said.

Agribusiness experts from companies operating throughout the world convened at Colorado State University on Wednesday to discuss how innovation will play a role in increased agricultural production in the next decade. They pointed to water conservation technologies, navigational devices, drones and genetically modified crops as ways that producers can help meet growing demand.

The panel at the CSU Agricultural Innovation Summit featured nearly two-dozen executives, environmentalists, academics and farmers in a debate that underscored tensions between mainstream farming and environmentalists and highlighted the challenges they face in producing more food with finite resources.

The world’s population is expected to swell to 9.6 billion people by 2050, according to the United Nations. Feeding that population may be possible, but environmentalists cautioned that doing so will consume earth’s resources and damage the environment.

Carlos Saviani, vice president of animal protein for World Wildlife Fund, pointed to research by the organization indicating that deforestation to accommodate industries such as farming and ranching has threatened wildlife habitat. About 17 percent of forest in the South American Amazon region has been destroyed mostly for cattle ranching, for example. Animal species, too, have declined partly as a result of agribusiness activities, Saviani said.

“It shows what we’re doing to the planet,” he said.

Steven Hoffman, managing director of sustainability consulting firm Compass Natural LLC in Boulder, said that greater investments in organic farming techniques would help thwart environmental destruction from traditional agricultural methods.

“If we could actually see investments in organic agriculture on the scale of mainstream agriculture, we could learn from each other truly sustainable systems,” he said.

Cameron Bruett, head of sustainability for Greeley’s JBS USA, a subsidiary of Brazilian meatpacker JBS S.A, said that all agricultural sectors must work together to achieve goals of feeding a rising population.

“No farmer in America wakes up in the morning and says, ‘How do I pollute rivers and streams, how do I poison women and children, how do I decimate the environment?’” Bruett said. “They are more concerned about how they can pass on their generations of work to the next generation.”

Bruett added that as incomes rise throughout the world, people will consume more protein, such as eggs and meat, and he acknowledged meeting that demand would pose challenges to preserving the environment.

That’s why Bruett has led the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, an initiative aimed at helping the world’s largest producers use more environmentally sensitive methods to produce beef. Sustainability practices, he said, will have to be tailored for each region and production sector in the future.

Kent McDaniel, vice president of marketing and service for Crop Production Services, said that he had confidence in technology to help farmers manage not just individual fields, but square meters within those fields.

“How do we produce more with less? I think that’s kind of what it all boils down to,” he said.

Despite all the advances in technology, farmers like Bob Mattive, owner of Worley Family Fields in Monte Vista, have trouble even finding laborers to work in their fields.

“So many of these jobs, they still require manual labor,” he said. “We can employ a lot of technology, but we still have to have people, and labor is becoming a more difficult problem to overcome.”