What’s the future of food and agriculture? A Purdue University economist shares his thoughts – Agweek

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Look at the prize money in front of you as you sit down for holiday meals over the next few days. And how will it be different from what you will eat in 10 years? And, just as importantly, how will the way food is produced and brought to your table change?

Agriculture and food methods have changed over time. Few people produce food, and we don’t rely solely on locally produced goods to fill our tables. Nor do most of us dine on flavorful jelly salads from the mid-20th century. Farm work is no longer horse and carriage, and the vast majority of people buy eggs from stores rather than collecting them from their own flocks.

Science and technology, as well as human desires, are constantly moving and changing, and agriculture and food continue to change. Over the next few days, our Future of Food series will look at the technology and changes food and agriculture are undergoing. Learn about technological advances in agriculture and food equipment, new breeding techniques for plants, the discovery of livestock genes, new ways to grow food, food improvements, new markets to meet changing consumer demands, and more.

A man in a blue sports jacket sits on a chair and smiles at the camera.

Jason Rusk
Photo by Karen Remley

Jason Rusk has some ideas for where the future of food is headed. Lusk is a Distinguished Professor and Head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University in Indiana. He is a prominent speaker on the economics of food and agriculture, and has published “The Food Police: A Well-Fed Manifesto About the Politics of Your Plate” and “Unnaturally Delicious: How Science and Technology Can Save the World.” and “Compassion by the Pound: The Economics of Livestock Welfare”.

One thing he doubts is that the way food reaches the table in the next decade could change.

“I think it’s almost a certainty that we’ll probably see more online purchases,” he said. “Even before the pandemic, we tended to buy more food through the internet.

He sees opportunities for entrepreneurs to come up with new ways to get food to consumers. He believes that the preparation of the food itself will become easier and more convenient. For example, when people prepare their turkey for the holidays, there is still a huge surge of discussion online about how to cook it.

“That would probably reveal the underlying fact that we’ve got food that’s so easy to cook and clean. and the continued ambiguity of ‘what is a restaurant’ is likely to continue, he said.

And then there’s the question of what consumers know about their food. Lusk believes that, if measurement and reporting are improved enough, there is potential for quantitative food labeling that addresses things like carbon emissions and water usage, unlike nutrition labeling today. increase.

“We are not there yet, and that will require a world where more data is created and shared across food systems,” he said. “But I think that’s kind of the world we’re heading into, and maybe the world we can look forward to.”

Agriculture has an incredible history of productivity growth, and I tend to think of productivity growth as the cornerstone of any discussion on sustainability.

Jason Rusk

According to Rusk, the COVID-19 pandemic has put more emphasis on regional and local foods and their importance in the resilience of food systems. , believes that the local system has room for growth. But it’s also unlikely to be the primary way people get food.

“Commodities are very efficient and very affordable. If you deviate from that, your costs will increase. If you want to go smaller, you lose economies of scale,” he said. “Most people still ask what is the biggest factor in buying food today, be it taste or price.”

The November 2022 Consumer Food Insights Report by the Purdue School of Agriculture’s Center for Food Demand Analysis and Sustainability shows that to be true. This monthly report surveys her more than 1,200 Americans across the country to track trends and changes in consumer food demand and food sustainability behavior. In November, taste, nutrition and affordability were the top attributes respondents in all regions of the United States said they considered when purchasing food. Next came availability, environmental impact, and social responsibility.

Rusk explained that there is no one right or wrong food system.

“Yes, economists have a saying that there are no solutions, only trade-offs.

So if you want more local food, you have to pay more. No, he said. Likewise, biotechnology, sustainability, means of meat production, and other food choices are tradeoffs.

For example, in a paper recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at the University of Minnesota’s GEMS Information Center, Department of Applied Economics, and the Minnesota Supercomputing Laboratory found that modern scientifically bred crop varieties are increased biodiversity cropping practices and significantly increased wheat yields in

This means that trade-offs in using landrace varieties in agriculture may be accepting that those varieties are less productive.

“It is not a sustainable solution for farmers to go back to landraces and landraces en masse. Innovation in scientifically bred varieties allows more people to use less land, fertilizer and water.” , which improves overall crop diversity,” said Kevin Silverstein, director of science at the Supercomputing Lab.

Rusk said the United States has many food options, from “large and efficient agriculture” to “myriad options” in grocery stores to farmers markets and other food sources.

“No system is perfect for everyone, and we are in a world where people can choose the system that works best for them.

Conversations about food choices can be confusing, so Lusk starts with a foundation of shared values, including that everyone cares about the future and the environment, even if they have different visions. recommend to.

“Respect the choices of people who have different incomes, different positions, or are in a slightly different place in life,” he said.

Biotechnology: According to Rusk, the debate over genetic engineering has calmed down somewhat, in part because federal labeling laws gave people and businesses the information they wanted. Looking to the future, he believes further innovations aimed at consumers could change the way we think about biotechnology. For example, he said one of his key ingredients that give Impossible his burger’s “red color and animal-like flavor” comes from GMOs. It didn’t cause much backlash.

bioengineering label.png

Bioprocessed Food Labeling in the United States
Courtesy/U.S. Department of Agriculture

“Part of it may be because a lot of people don’t know about it, but I think it also suggests that it becomes a secondary issue when you start seeing innovation,” he said. said.

Similarly, non-browning Arctic apples and innovations that affect flavor, spice and nutritional value could shift consumer opinion to be more positive or neutral towards biotechnology.

Lusk also anticipates that on-farm use of biotechnology could become more acceptable, especially in the area of ​​animal disease resistance.

sustainability: Developing robust sustainability metrics would be an opportunity for agriculture, Rusk said. The pressure to adopt sustainability standards comes from the investment sector rather than from consumers, but it shows that agriculture is producing more with less land, water, pesticides and fertilizers. It’s a good story if you can.

“Agriculture has an incredible history of productivity growth, and I tend to think of productivity growth as the cornerstone of any discussion on sustainability,” he said.

The development of these indicators involves not only using technology to better track inputs, but also to better measure the results of carbon sequestration efforts such as planting cover crops and using no-till techniques. included. At this time, the idea of ​​how much carbon is sequestered is not based on sound science working in different soil types and regions. By improving its technology, companies paying for carbon offset credits can better judge whether they are getting their money’s worth, and how long-term commitments to farming practices are valuable to farmers. Rusk says that we can better establish whether there is

Meat consumption: While the proportion of people who do not eat meat or consume less meat continues to rise slightly, so does the demand for meat products. This is likely to lead to polarization.

Animal welfare advocates are pushing for things like banning the use of gestation crates for sows and cages for poultry, and Rusk says the “continuous pressure on the system to improve animal welfare” will end. But he doesn’t see “big and significant changes” coming.

“Once you get rid of some of the more negative images that can appear about production, it makes it harder to move on to the next one,” he said.

Plant-based meat substitutes have seen significant growth over the past few years, but that has plateaued and even started to decline.

“Actually, the latest numbers I’ve seen are sales of these products are down about 20% compared to the same period last year,” he said.

The development of more cellular products could spur renewed interest in meat substitutes, he said.

Illness can create disruptions in supply and demand. African swine fever has decimated pig populations in other countries, and avian flu is a worldwide problem. said it is possible.

New food production system: According to Rusk, new technologies such as vertical farming and aquaponics that increase crop productivity in adverse weather are of interest. Ultimately, however, they face stiff competition.

“What I see is that it’s very difficult to compete with the sun,” he said.

Until progress solves the problem of whether it is more efficient and affordable to grow crops outdoors powered by the sun, Rusk believes there will be a limit to how much can be moved to indoor operations. However, there are places where it makes sense, such as “very high value crops” such as herbs and lettuce.

Row crop: When it comes to the future of row crops, Rusk said trade and global events could be very disruptive. The United States is a major exporter of many crops, including corn and soybeans, so any needle-moving event in exports, to a greater or lesser extent, could quickly shift markets.

“It’s not just lunch,” he said of the trade. “It creates some vulnerabilities.”

Other crop disruptions may include those that affect livestock production and may lead to reduced or increased feed requirements. Since soybeans and corn are used in large amounts in biofuel products, demand may be curbed by factors such as the rise of electric vehicles. Growing demand for plant-based products other than meat can lead to new opportunities. New technologies, such as robotics and small tractors that reduce soil compaction, have the potential to improve sustainability and productivity.

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