Agriculture must do better at telling the positive story of how farmers continue to provide the most abundant, the safest and the most affordable food and fiber on the planet.
That’s a challenge Ryan Quarles, Kentucky commissioner of agriculture, and president of the Southern Association of State Departments of Agriculture, made to the Southern Crop Production Association during the 65th annual meeting Nov. 10 in Charleston, S.C.
Quarles noted other important issues the industry faces, including pushing back on misinformation, the growing threat of litigation, trade barriers, and the challenges presented by an aging farm population.
Communication, with consumers and legislators, Quarles said, must improve. Science, he added, says yes to technology farmers use to improve productivity. “Consumers say no. They assume products are dangerous and we are losing the public perception issue with technology.
“We have to do a better job of responding to activist groups. We have to push back on inaccurate information,” he said.
He pointed to gene editing, a process made possible through genome sequencing that allows scientists to change, turn on or turn off a specific gene.
It is not GMO,” Quarles said. “We have to be clear about the nomenclature when we discuss gene editing. We have to communicate the difference; it’s important that we tell our story.”
The challenge includes issues such as dicamba. “We had only two complaints this year in Kentucky,” he said. “We had 30 last year.” He says complaints may “be under-reported since some farmers work the issues out on their own.” He also believes training and improved spray efficiency have helped reduce off-target applications.
Quarles says a recent survey emphasizes the disconnect between agriculture and the public. One startling revelation in that survey, he said, was the high percentage of respondents who thought chocolate milk comes from brown cows. Others were not aware that cheese is a dairy product or that hamburger comes from cattle.
“We need better communication.”
Quarles said the impending introduction of “lab-created meat” demands strong communication. Kentucky, he said, passed a law prohibiting labeling the lab-produced product as meat. “They can call it whatever they want, but not meat,” he said. Other states have passed or are considering similar legislation.
He said SCPA members need to be aware of and involved in government affairs, local, state and national. “We have fewer legislators with ties to agriculture,” he said, which puts a bigger burden on SCPA and other agriculture organizations to educate elected officials.
A lot of ag-related issues are being pushed in state legislatures, Quarles said. “Some good, some bad, but elections matter.”
So does litigation. He pointed to the jury awards in California from glyphosate cases. It’s an issue that is not likely to stay contained in California, he said. That issue, as well as other lawsuits pertaining to agriculture, may threaten farmers across the nation.
He said trade issues, especially with China, have been hard on farmers. “But we have trade negotiators hard at work. We are also doing better in South America and are having conversations with India. We seem to be making some headway in the EU.” Non-science-based trade barriers, especially regarding GMO products, hinder trade with the EU, he said.
He said Japan offers promise for increased trade for Kentucky and other American farmers.
“But the best thing for the price of ag commodities will be passage of the Unites States-Canada-Mexico Agreement (USCMCA). It’s important for U.S. agriculture.”
Quarles says he is optimistic about agriculture. “Technology will revolutionize agriculture in our lifetime.”
He said numerous start-up entrepreneurs are looking for capital to build ag companies. Some have no background in agriculture, he adds, but Kentucky is developing opportunities to assist start-ups.
The aging farm population Quarles says, creates concern.
“The average age of Kentucky farmers is 62. Across the nation, I think it’s 60. We need to do a better job of inspiring young people to consider farming. There is money to be made in agriculture. But farming will require higher education, more technology.”
Farm succession, he adds, poses another obstacle for the next generation of farmers. A significant percentage of farmers old enough to retire do not have a succession plan.
“I remain optimistic,” he added. He credits “our grandfathers, beginning about 50 years ago. They doubled food production. Now, we have to do that again and we have to do it in a more environmentally friendly manner. It has to be consumer friendly.”
He said transparency for consumers will be important.
“We also must be aware of the global nature of agriculture. But we still produce the most abundant, safest, most affordable food in the world.”