May 22, 2013

Commentary - From Dairy Farm to the Global Table

By Mr. Tom Gallagher, CEO, Dairy Management Inc. 

I was fortunate to be in attendance as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs released their new report, “Advancing Global Food Security: The Power of Science, Trade, and Business” at the 2013 Global Food Security Symposium. It makes sense to look to these three pillars, since they are what helped drive American agricultural production throughout the 20th Century. Today, farmers achieve an output 250 percent greater than what they did from the same inputs in 1930. And as we’ve gotten more efficient on the farm, fewer Americans have stayed there – today, farmers constitute just two percent of the population, down from 22 percent eighty years ago.

But we need to look to those two percent as we attempt to solve a challenge as hard and as complex as any in modern history. It’s well known that we’ll need to increase global food production by 60 percent over the next 40 years. That would be a daunting task if it was simply taking a satisfactory food system and scaling it upwards, but it’s so much more than that.

Our current global food system leaves 870 million hungry. Two billion are undernourished. A system with results like that is one that needs to be changed dramatically. But that change can only be implemented responsibly; while our population is growing, our resources – land, water, air – are not.

Against this backdrop, it would be easy to become discouraged. These are complex systems with nearly limitless variables – climate, price, weather events, international trade, foreign policy and more. All the while the clock is ticking. Yet I take confidence in the dairy farmers I’m fortunate to work with every day. For centuries, they’ve held the roles of veterinarian, economist, entrepreneur, meteorologist, agronomist and, most importantly, parent. Few professions are more prepared to help us navigate a world where concerns of climate and economics meet ones of public health and food access. We’ll need on-farm as well as in-store adaptations and innovations to ensure the world of our children – and our children’s children – is one that gives the global population access to sufficient, safe, affordable and nutritious food.

But these dairy farmers have done it before. They’ve sought out and implemented the production efficiencies that sustain American resources – an example we’ll need to replicate globally. Over a 63-year span (1944-2007), the dairy industry reduced its carbon footprint by 63 percent, all while quadrupling the annual milk yield. Indeed, the more productive on-farm practices become, the lower the carbon footprint that results. This is why it takes five cows in Mexico to match the output of one California cow. That number becomes even higher in other countries. In the U.S., we’ve reached the point where a growing number of farms are converting their waste to energy through anaerobic digesters, powering the farm and surrounding homes – a true closed food system.

That’s not to say that the model that’s emerged in North America is replicable or even desirable elsewhere. Even domestically, sometimes the differences between a dairy farm in New York and one in Idaho are so vast that one could be left wondering if they are, in fact, in the same industry. But what we can count on across the board is milk’s role as a healthy and local source of nutrition and a driver of economic growth in the community it belongs to. As we look at emerging countries with growing middle classes that want their nutrition from dairy products, it’s important to think of it as economic potential to be unlocked rather than red tape to be avoided. I believe it falls to the American, Canadian and European dairy communities to assist their peers across the globe wherever possible.

So there are many things we can share with the world – new products that are nutrient-rich and shelf-stable, for instance – but maybe the most important of all is the knowledge our farmers have gained and implemented since the end of World War II as they adapted to meet the needs of a growing American population. That’s why when the Chicago Council honed in on the power of science, trade, and business to end hunger, I felt truly confident that those are the areas where American agriculture is best equipped to help solve this hardest – and most important – of challenges.

About

The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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