Food Waste Solutions Include the American Farmer (Part 2)

Biotechnology is Part of the Food Waste Solution

by Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm Director

Last week, California Ag Today published an article about the food waste in America discussion held at the 2016 Maximum Residue Level (MRL) Workshop in San Francisco. Jay Vroom, CEO of CropLife America, felt the farmer’s voice was largely absent from the topic of food waste. In the second part of this series, Vroom advocates for the use of bioscience to help eliminate food waste.

According to Vroom, the most vital occurrence of food waste is in production. Consumer food waste is very high, but Vroom believes bioscience is key to keeping the statistics low in all areas of production. “The opportunities for crop protection and biotechnology span a visual that would certainly overcome food waste yield potential with biotechnology,” he said.

In addition, Vroom stated that other genetic enhancements, crop protection tools, seed bed preparation, soil health, moisture management, modern plant nutrient, fertility programs and equipment advances all underscore why farmers need to be included in the food waste discussion. “Most especially,” Vroom said agriculture community can contribute, “the miracles of precision agriculture that are out there in the hands of farmers in almost every corner of the United States today and in almost every farming system.”

At the MRL Workshop, Vroom told the audience, “The farmer’s role and the farmer’s voice in all this is largely absent. We’re looking to help lead—with many of you and others who are willing to participate in a broad coalition—in getting the farmer’s voice in there.”

Jay Vroom, CEO, CropLife America
Jay Vroom, CEO of CropLife America

The farmer’s voice, equipment and biotechnology are imperative because, “modern genetic seed advancements and breeding also generate plant material that is healthier and results in longer storability,” said Vroom. If food were to have longer storability, it wouldn’t be as much of a consumer issue.”

Vroom’s affiliates, who have surveyed the food waste landscape and uncovered results that encourage farmers to speak up, concluded, “The farmer’s voice in the food waste conversation is an opportunity that we see as wide open.”

“I think a place for us to start would be to get the facts together,” Vroom stated, “such as, ‘How much more food would be wasted if the technologies the farmers used to produce those crops today weren’t available and you would have a lot less storability, shelf life, etcetera?’”

“We know that insects, disease, weed control, regulators, fumigants, direct and indirect food waste data is out there,” Vroom said. “We need to gather that up, work together, and assemble it by crop to tell that story about the crops that are directly consumed by consumers.”

Vroom discussed food waste mostly with regard to produce; however, animals and dairy are equally important in the conversation. “Certainly  it gets a little more complicated with protein; but once again, better animal nutrition results in less food waste from meat, milk and eggs. Those are animal agriculture partnerships that we don’t often reach out to, yet another opportunity for us to be able to tell that indirect story as well,” he said.

Vroom contended there are many ways for farmers in every aspect of agriculture to “join forces, connect to the food waste and food safety debate, and to eliminate these critical issues, which certainly time to time is also front of mind for consumers and voters. And we’ve got a great story to tell,” he concluded.

The International Food Information Council Conducts Consumer Survey

The International Food Information Council took a look at what U.S. consumers think about food safety and food technology, and offered some insights on the results in a webinar in late June. The topics included some that are of interest to the produce industry, including sustainability and biotechnology.

IFIC staff noted that consumers are farther removed from the sources of their food than ever before, and that food is a personal and emotional topic. They also noted that labeling initiatives around the United States put biotech in the spotlight, and social media and speedy communications spread information more quickly than ever.

These are a few takeaways from the webinar:

Confidence in the U.S. food supply, at 67% (19% neutral, 14% not confident) remains about the same as it has for the past six years. Consumers’ top concerns remain disease/contamination (18%) and handling/preparation (18%), but those concerns have declined since 2008.

When asked whether they avoid certain foods, 53% said they did—primarily for health reasons. The types of foods they avoid (in order) were: sugar/carbs, fats/oils/cholesterol, animal products, snack foods/fast foods/soda, salt/sodium, artificial/additives, processed/refined foods, biotech (1%). These attitudes certainly bode well for fresh produce.

Fewer than one in 10 know a lot about sustainability in food production, and more than four in 10 know nothing at all. Yet two-thirds say it is important that foods are produced sustainably. However, in general, consumers won’t pay more for sustainable foods.

Consumers believe modern agriculture produces nutritious, safe, high-quality foods that can be sustainable. Just over half believe farms are still primarily family-run.

Overall, U.S. consumers have heard a little about food biotechnology, but only 11% have heard a lot. Compared to prior years, consumers’ impressions of food biotech has changed—favorable 28% (37% in 2012) and 29% unfavorable (20% in 2012).

Interestingly, nearly two-thirds of consumers believe vegetables and fruits are biotech products. When given rationales for using biotechnology (e.g. reducing carcinogens, protecting produce from insect damage which reduces pesticide applications), two-thirds or more of consumers say they are likely to buy them. One-quarter of consumers want additional labeling information, and of those 4% want biotech information (up from 1% and 0% in prior surveys).

Studies like this continue to show that consumers need and want information. It’s up to us to tell them.