The long-predicted and dire warning of the world’s inability to feed the expected 2050 global population with our current processes and rate of food production is not breaking news, but it also should not be relegated to the archives. Rather the issues need to be continually vocalized and solutions sought. What are the issues of more production, sustainability, yield, and less environmental impact? What other challenges are farmers facing? How are technologies enabling the production of more food with less? How does this impact the entire food chain?
As the first link in the chain, it is critical that farmers around the world focus on sustainability. As GlobalGAP Chairman of the Board Guy Callebaut of Antwerp, Belgium, said, “Sustainability is not a matter of relief, it’s a necessity and a license to produce.” But it comes with challenges.
Just as food processors and manufactures in the U.S. face challenges in meeting the specifications of retailers who are subject to the needs and wants of consumers, so too are farmers around the globe subject to that challenge. But they also are subject to the specifications of their next link in the chain: food processors and manufacturers. Additionally, they are the first link in the chain of sustainability, which is increasingly gaining international focus. As such, it has become more challenging to produce more with less.
Grower Wilbert van Wijk of Van Wijk Fruit in Utrecht, Netherlands, said that about 50% of his farm’s produce is sold to retailers. While it is necessary that he use pesticides for crop protection, he said, “Some retailers have started to give us secondary rules,” such as allowing for only one-third of the maximum residue limit (MRL) that is permitted by law. However, they also want the produce to be of high quality and maintain shelf-life. So, it’s always a balancing act to fulfill specifications of both shelf-life and low MRLs of these perishable products while maintaining a focus on sustainability and reducing food waste.
Adding to the challenge, said Food Safety Manager and Agronomist Ben Burgers of Roveg Fruit in Waddinxveen, Netherlands, is that growers must always think a year ahead, while remembering that “just because we make an agreement doesn’t mean we have the order from a retailer,” he said.
“The expectations of the stakeholders have changed,” agreed Andreas Lenz, managing director of DHL Logistics in Cologne, Germany. “Producers are asking for new supply-chain solutions for storage and transportation traceability,” he said. In addition to protecting perishable produce, all products must meet clearance in harbors and customs for export. “We cannot speed up the ship or the plane, but we can connect those in the supply chain to reduce time.” To make it as short as possible, the farmer must understand the needs of the market: of the producer and consumer, then develop the right mix and control the frequency of delivery. “One-third of worldwide production goes to waste, so whatever we can do to reduce that helps the entire world,” Lenz said.
It’s not that farmers don’t want to reduce pesticides, but they do need to have options and resources to protect their crops. However, too often, actions are taken and messages put out without enough thought behind them, which causes pesticides to be pulled and farmers to have to find other alternatives, added van Wijk. When that happens, it takes more to control the pest or disease, which can have a significant impact on production. “We, as farmers, must do much more about our storytelling,” he said. “It’s good to be open, to invite people to our farms.”
“It’s not news that consumers want more information about their food origins than ever before, and those values are incredibly important to farmers as well. But, ultimately, they want the freshest, safety, highest quality food that can be sustainably produced,” said Karen Buch, president and founder of Nutrition Connections in Harrisburg, Pa. “Consumers do effect change,” she said. Their feedback to companies, opinions on social media, and “voting with their food dollars” impact the entire food chain.
Customers also request new products Burger said. But that, he said, “is an easy question with a difficult answer.” It takes time, at least a year, to develop new products, and in that time, the customer may go to a competitor and you don’t get the contract at the end.
Thus, farmers are getting and spreading the same message as processors: We need to do more to educate suppliers, customers, and consumers on what is being done in these areas throughout the global food chain.