Last night in a small forum opened to the public, the Sustainability Practice Network held a panel discussion, moderated by the RiskMetrics Group, about the future of sustainable agriculture.  The speakers were an important group of corporate and non-profit voices:

  • Michael Doane, Agricultural Economics and Sustainability, Monsanto
  • Ani Gulati, Assistant General Counsel and Sustainability, General Mills
  • Chip Jones, SVP Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability, Dean Foods
  • Jake Baker, Climate Change Investment Research, Deutsche Bank
  • Tensie Whelan, President, Rainforest Alliance
  • Josh Viertel, President, Slow Food USA

Admission:  I’m inclined to judge these names and titles quickly, breaking them down into “us” and “them.”  Afterall, I grew up as our culture started to summarize complex issues in the few words of a bumper sticker or a t-shirt slogan.  To the credit of everyone involved last night, the panel facilitated a conversation.

Continued below

Image Courtesy of The Matter Network

Image Courtesy of The Matter Network

As an easy definition of sustainability, we say it’s when something is good for the three P’s:  people, planet and profits.  In speaking of agriculture, the P in people quickly becomes the P in population.  The human race is expected to nearly double in size to 9 billion by 2050.  No one is sure how we will feed this many.

A question emerged from the panel:  To feed the growing population, do we need to increase food production or can we accomplish this by improving food distribution channels?

To this end, Josh Viertel gave an astonishing statistic:  Last year we made enough food to feed 11 billion people.  “We don’t have a production gap, we have a distribution gap,” he said.

Michael Doane of Monsanto advocated for increased production as the solution.  His company develops biotech seeds — seeds infused with a trait to resist drought or certain pests, for example — that create more prolific crops.  According to him, there are two billion acres of biotech crops around the world.  They are starting biotech rice in China.  (Yes, the biggest crop among the world’s largest population is going biotech.)  Only the Europeans are holding out against this technology.

In response, I understand the quickening of our collective heart rate as we think about a food crisis one generation away.  Many forces are working to address this immediately.  But in the break-neck pace of solution (and market share gain), we risk undermining a delicate ecological system.  Monsanto has a Research and Development department that constructs new seeds to conquer the traditional problems of farming.  But the problem with genetically modified seeds or biotech seeds is that Nature also has its own R & D department.  The biotech seeds may solve a weakness for awhile, but over time, Nature returns with a more robust pest or plant disease.

At very least, biotech does not solve problems for the long term.  At very worst, it irreversibly tampers with the agricultural heritage of which we are the guardians.

We have many compelling possibilities to address food insecurity and planet peril, such as:

  • Improved distribution channels, including the decentralization of food.  More local providers and thus shorter food chains.
  • Vertical Farming:  An urban-based system using closed-loop hydroponics.  Crops are located where the population lives.  We preserve seed integrity and there’s no need for pesticides.
  • Sustainable fish cultivation.
  • Increased global productivity through better farming techniques and training.
  • And the expansion of our growing surfaces:  Rooftops, abandoned lots, etc.

Yes, these other ideas are in the nascent stage of development.  But when we consider what’s at stake — food for human beings — how can we not develop these ideas first?  The answer to the question of whether it is increased production or improved distribution is likely both.

Not at the risk, however, of manipulating seeds when many other workable solutions exist.  I stand with the Europeans on this one.  Readers, I’d love to hear from you.