Intensify to Sustainability

CAST Award Winner Highlights Ag Intensification, Stewardship in Climate Conversation

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Marty Matlock, a professor of biological and agricultural engineering at the University of Arkansas, won the annual science communications award from the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology at the World Food Prize's Borlaug Dialogue this week in Des Moines. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

DES MOINES (DTN) -- Marty Matlock sees the efforts to address climate change, global population rise and agricultural sustainability as the need to further intensify food production on current cropland while better explaining the story of modern food production to consumers.

Matlock, a professor of biological and agricultural engineering at the University of Arkansas, was recognized Wednesday with the annual science communications award from the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) at the World Food Prize's Borlaug Dialogue this week in Des Moines.

Nobel Prize laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug was a wheat breeder and considered father of the Green Revolution. Matlock said his message was tied to views expressed by Borlaug before he passed away in 2009.

"If we're going to feed 10 billion people on this planet without destroying all other life, we're going to have to strategically intensify agricultural production on the planet," Matlock said, adding that the footprint of agriculture needs to be frozen rather than expanded.

Matlock, who also serves as executive director of the University of Arkansas Resiliency Center, noted those views are shared by global conservation groups such as the World Wildlife Fund, reflecting a coming together of some conservation and farm organizations.

In a panel discussion on Wednesday, Matlock said consumers should not have to decide between "sustainable and unsustainable food." Consumers have a standard expectation of safety and should have the same expectation for sustainability. Food production, due to farmer stewardship, may already meet sustainability goals, but that message might not be reaching consumers, he said.

"What we have to do is tell that story better," Matlock said. "We have a very good story to tell. We're not done, but we have to tell it better because we're not telling it well."

Erin Fitzgerald, CEO of the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, said consumer trust starts with stewardship. She noted every sector of the economy is trying to place an emphasis on sustainability.

"I believe the food and agriculture sector absolutely needs to own the topics of both stewardship and sustainability," Fitzgerald said. "There's no other sector that is actually delivering on the topics of sustainability other than the food sector."

Jason Weller, senior director of sustainability for Land O'Lakes SUSTAIN, pointed to the explosion of consumer interest in topics about how food is grown, tied to environmental and social issues.

"There's a reason why a lot of these big multinational food companies and retailers are moving in the direction towards trying to communicate how sustainable their products or their storefronts are driving sustainability," Weller said, adding that the focus is not just in coastal states or one demographic or generation. "Agriculture has a moment in time, as an industry, as a grower or as a cooperative system, a food company or an input company, to communicate how modern agriculture really is ensuring the integrity, not just the safety, the value of an item, but also the stewardship of the natural resources."

The risk, Weller added, is that agriculture might not be engaged enough in efforts to define sustainability, leading critics of modern food production to create definitions "and it will be defined for all of us and in ways that are not necessarily advantageous to the farmer."

Food companies like Pepperidge Farm, are working with Land O'Lakes because they want to make sustainability claims about its Goldfish crackers. The company is sourcing wheat in the Chesapeake Bay, tying it to efforts to reduce nutrient loads in the bay. This differentiates wheat but also highlights the relationship between the consumer and the farmer.

"That's actually constructive of the notion that our food systems are sustainable," Matlock said. He added, "I think that's a very positive message."

Fitzgerald later added there are change makers in other fields working on new technologies or space travel. She would like to see such an effort applied to agriculture and climate change.

"I would really like to encourage all of us to how we enable farmers to be the change makers of the future," Fitzgerald said.

Citing the growth in population, Matlock added that agriculture and society as well have to find ways to re-engage in developing trust that will ensure sustainable agriculture production as the population rises and the planet warms.

"Our challenges are urgent because our demographic changes are happening fast," Matlock said.

In redesigning agriculture, Matlock said the role of urban farming can't be dismissed. Because of high land values, more agriculture will be grown in greenhouses and small acreages intensely growing vegetables.

Matlock later acknowledged having a conversation around climate change isn't easy, because most grassroots farm organizations are reluctant to broach the topic. He said such efforts must begin with common values rather than division and blame.

"You build on what we agree, not where we disagree," Matlock said. "Every farmer out there knows their weather is changing. We're facing record floods, record droughts, record heat and record cold -- all in the last decade. This is part of their experience. They are not interested in casting blame, they are interested in understanding how they can respond. The problem we have with the climate change debate is about blame."

The larger theme at the World Food Prize symposium this week was nutrition, especially drawing attention to the dangers of early childhood stunted growth, a condition directly linked to malnutrition. This year's 2018 World Food Prize laureates Lawrence Haddad and David Nabarro spoke earlier this week at a side event on science and storytelling. They noted stunting has long-term economic impacts on nations, because stunting doesn't just damage children physically but has lasting impacts on mental capabilities as well.

"There's a direct link between early childhood malnutrition and education," Nabarro said. "Politicians are just starting to see that malnutrition is an issue that needs to be addressed for national development."

The pair talked about work to influence policymakers to give a higher priority to nutrition in government and aid-relief budgets.

"That's what I'm trying to do is get nutrition on the public agenda," said Nabarro, a former United Nations official.

Haddad, executive director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, said the U.S. is plagued by nutrition-related diseases such as diabetes. Healthier foods should be focused on adolescents who pick up eating habits they carry throughout their lives.

Haddad also said celebrity chefs have shown the ability to shift food consumption and demand as well. He also questioned the logic some argue of shifting to plant-based diets. That may be better for the environment, he said, "but on the health side, it seems much more complicated."

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Chris Clayton