Sunday, January 22, 2017

Farm-gate and consumer food prices - a need for genuine analysis.

What is it that we want our agriculture to do? 

Australia agriculture continues to put food on the tables three times a day.  It continues to innovate and contribute to the nation's prosperity.  It continues to eke out efficiencies in the production system. Though much is to be lauded, much needs to change.   

Modern agriculture is grounded on the belief that the primary objective of the industry is to produce as much food and fibre as possible for the least cost. 

These twin goals have long shaped farming, and underpinned agricultural research.  But with evidence that food is wasted in developed countries (and in developing countries), that food security is a now accepted as a major global issue, and issues of environmental degradation and health problems such as obesity, we need to define what it is that we want contemporary agriculture to do. 

And in doing so, we must be prepared to pay for the “qualities” we want in our food – ethical production, environmental values, animal welfare, safe products – not just accept to dictum that food is too expensive.  Farm gate prices would suggest we are not paying the full cost of production to the quality standards we expect.  The wholesale/retail sector makes big margins -  supermarket drive the price to consumers down (or so they say) but seemingly not at the expense of profit.  There is little transparency in the market trail – consumers do not really know what they are paying for, and for producers it is even more opaque.

Social media abound with comment, much ill-founded on food and food security issues. Parallel with this, we see heightened interests in food and cooking, and in urban agriculture/vegetable growing.  Then there is health - over consumption of energy rich food, imbalanced diets and obesity. 

There is a sense we are missing the big picture. 

Is modern agriculture about producing cheap food? What other values might apply to agriculture, such as preserving landscape and countryside? Can we change the profitability of the system? What should the drivers be for a new agriculture? What is prosperity in contemporary agriculture?  What is the value proposition for all players in the market?

Engaging in public debate on these issues and acknowledging their complexity will help define the shape of future agricultural research and our farm and food systems.

There is nothing new in this.  In recent reading I re-discover a couple of paper in my files from  David Fraser, an animal welfare researcher at the University of British Columbia:
  • Fraser D (1999) Animal ethics and animal welfare science: bridging the two cultures.  Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 65: 171-189, and
  • Fraser D (2001) The “New Perception” of animal agriculture: legless cows, featherless chickens and a need for genuine analysis.  Journal of Animal Science 79: 634-6411
The second title relates to an often-cited quote in animal welfare literature about a (disputed) claim by an animal geneticist that his organisation was attempting to ‘breed animals without legs and chickens without feathers’.

The quote highlights, however, concern felt in some quarters over the direction of modern agriculture. While gene technology is poised to deliver many benefits to agriculture in the fight against disease, reduced environmental impact and enhanced food nutrition and quality, it could fancifully be argued that the technology might one day be equally capable of delivering a legless cow.

Nowhere in modern agriculture is the polarisation of different viewpoints on the direction of animal agriculture more evident than in the fields of gene technology and animal welfare.
In these debates and others, such as the growing divide between production and sustainability science, a far better analysis is required of complex issues to answer the questions of what we want agriculture to do.  

David Fraser describes the polarised views on modern agriculture in terms of the ‘new perception’ and the ‘neotraditional portrayal’. In the new perception, agriculture is regarded as detrimental to animal welfare, controlled by large corporations, motivated by profit, causing world hunger, producing unhealthy food and harmful to the environment.  It is a dichotomy between a negative view that we are “Future Eaters” (as in Tim Flannery’s book with the same title) or the more constructive view that we are “Future Makers” (as argued by David F Smith, in his paper In Praise of Exotic Species”, Quadrant February 2014).

At the other end of the spectrum, Fraser defines the neotraditional portrayal of the industry as beneficial to animal welfare, mainly controlled by families and individuals, motivated by traditional animal care values that lead to profit, augmenting world food supplies, producing safe and nutritious food and not harmful (often beneficial) to the environment.  

Literature from both ends of the spectrum tends to provide information that supports one of these polarised viewpoints while often failing to acknowledge the complexity of the debate, or attempting to establish a middle-ground.

Research undertaken by the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington indicates that the demand for animal protein will double within 20 years. This demand is being propelled by urbanisation and increased income, particularly in the developing world.  It is common knowledge now that we are heading for a world population of 9 billion, so projections in demand are entirely credible.

However, if we are going to increase livestock production, for example, to double protein production, major changes will be required in how we produce our product. If we increase per animal productivity two or three-fold, then we would also have to reduce environmental impact by a similar amount, accepting present community expectations.  While this may be technically possible within a reasonably short timeframe, is this what we want agriculture to do? How do we want to use the resource?

The agricultural production sector is often criticised for not meeting the triple bottom line (social, economic and environmental) yet by the same token we, at least in the developed world,  continue vote in the supermarkets for cheaper food.  

This not only challenges the viability of farming, it also means that much of what we do as societies is at cross purposes.  There are many questions to be asked, such as:

  • ·       Will we accept that profitability of farm enterprises, and especially family businesses, is a legitimate aspiration?
  • ·       Will we enact the market and price reforms, and equity distributions, need to achieve this?
  • ·       Will consumers accept the harvesting of native species, such as the Red or Grey kangaroo in countries like Australia, as an ecologically sustainable source of meat? 
  • ·       Should we be paying more for food and consuming less in the interests of less energy intake and lower obesity?

There is even the question of “What is food?” 

For example, rather than seeing beef just as a staple in the food system, could our mindset change so that we also think of beef as producing zinc and iron that can be injected into diets at critical times in human development – for example, in early childhood for brain development and early teenage years to combat iron deficiency. (Zinc and iron deficiencies appear to be two major nutritional issues in both the developed and developing worlds.)  In doing so, we change the whole value proposition for meat, and the prospect of better returns to producers, and enhanced benefits to consumers.  For those who are just after the eating experience, nothing changes.

These are myriad challenging questions to be asked, questions that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” but must be debated vigorously by a range of stakeholders in the public arena.  An effective response will be systemic.

Critical is a need to somehow re-connect consumers with the processes of food production. There is some hope that growth in the urban agricultural sector will enable more people to understand the complexities and vagaries in producing food - but that is only the tip of the iceberg.

Consumer confidence in science has been shaken in recent times by issues relating to food safety and diseases, such as bird flu.  To avoid misrepresentation, scientists have at times been reluctant to acknowledge any potential risk to food safety for fear that such an admission will distort the debate. Yet, with uncertainty comes awareness and planning for any potential unforeseen consequences. We cannot remain silent ( see

Risks can be managed effectively without raising public concern if potential risks to the food chain are acknowledged and a system of surveillance, monitoring and detection put in place that enable quick remedial action to address any problems that may arise.

Scientists should not be isolating themselves from controversy because the technical complexity of issues we are dealing with in the community now is such that we need to participate in the public debate – we need people who understand the science to engage.  Nor should other members of the community ignore the requirement to engage openly and responsibly in that debate.

Undoubtedly, we need more simultaneous research at all levels – from sub-cellular to ecological – to develop a greater understanding of issues at the boundaries of science and social and community impacts.  We also need parallel efforts to explore how to reform our markets and to give better price signals and financial returns to our farmers, and to educate consumers about the true cost of food.

We need a public debate too - an informed debate and based on genuine analysis.  

And we must accept the urgent need to do this.

What is it that we want our agriculture to do? 

1 comment:

  1. What is it that we want our agriculture to do? To nourish everyone - 24/7 in perpetuity


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