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State's farmers positioned to meet food challenges

Issue Date: February 1, 2012
By Ching Lee

With its diversity and integration with world markets, California agriculture is poised to match the growing demands of a booming population and its expanding wealth, but energy issues and the role of social media will certainly have an impact.

That was the take-home message of the second annual California Ag Summit last week at the University of California, Davis. Nearly 200 farmers, ranchers and others involved in food and agriculture turned out for the daylong event, which was coordinated and sponsored by agricultural organizations and businesses, including the California Farm Bureau Federation and the California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom.

Setting the stage for discussion about global food trends, Daniel Sumner, director of the UC Agricultural Issues Center, said asking where agriculture is heading requires considering the forces that are driving both the supply side and the demand side.

He pointed out that as people's incomes go up, they tend to demand more animal agriculture, whether it's dairy, beef or other meat products. The Golden State leads in dairy production, he noted, and other agricultural sectors are linked to dairy, such as alfalfa and other feed crops. Demand for grains usually goes up with people's income, as more of those commodities are used to feed livestock, he said.

The challenge facing agriculture is trying to feed more people in a world that is richer and more urban on basically the same land area with less water, said Alex McCalla, professor emeritus at the UC Davis Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. He also warned that increased food production will be made more difficult by competing demands for bioenergy and negative impacts of climate change.

"The increases are all going to have to come from productivity improvements—not just in terms of land productivity but also water productivity," McCalla said, adding that the increased productivity must come from technological advances.

He said he also thinks California is positioned better than most other regions of the world to handle these challenges and capitalize on trends.

Speaking about where agriculture fits in to national security and strategic development, Army Col. Cheryl Smart, an assistant professor of national security studies at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, said the nation's agricultural base is "a critical part of our national power, and a significant attack impacting our ability to feed ourselves would be truly catastrophic."

She said the "wars between the haves and the have-nots" will continue, as soaring food prices and urbanization contribute to instability in countries that cannot feed themselves. Hunger and poor agricultural practices also contribute to a "bottom billion" that is not reaping the benefits of globalization, she added.

Food insecurity is a problem of distribution, she said, and infrastructure to access natural resources and free flow of goods across critical integrated global systems is essential to eliminating hunger and enhancing stability.

She said the nation's "prime objective" now is maintaining the capability to feed its own people while leading efforts to feed the rest of the world and supporting U.S. economic competitiveness worldwide. That includes expanding research and development in developing countries, addressing immigration policies for farmworkers and investing in ports, roads, agricultural storage and other distribution capabilities here and abroad.

Addressing the future of U.S. and global energy production and how that may affect agriculture, John Hofmeister, former president of Shell Oil Co. and founder and CEO of Citizens for Affordable Energy, spoke critically of the United States' "business as usual scenario" in failing to develop an energy plan for self-reliance.

He said the way "we're frittering" with energy issues will result in Americans paying more for energy in the future.

He blamed the "perversity of partisanship" in Washington, D.C., and the lack of cooperation among the nation's political leaders for blocking progress on the issue.

"As long as the governance of energy is in its current form, this will continue," he said, adding that the solution is to "change the system," but ending the current political gridlock and forcing the systemic change "has to come from the people."

Meanwhile, energy in California will continue to become increasingly diverse in supply and delivery, said Duane Larson, director of energy efficiency strategy for Pacific Gas & Electric Co., and agriculture can position itself to use energy management resources to its advantage.

In the area of natural gas, Suzanne Minter, account executive at BENTEK Energy, said there's been a huge increase in its production since 2005. For agriculture, this means fertilizer prices will be lower. But she noted that natural gas prices will not stay depressed forever—maybe for another five years or more—but 30 years from now, they will be back in the range of $10 per thousand cubic feet.

Grant Lundberg, CEO of Lundberg Family Farms, gave an overview of some of the energy-saving and efficiency efforts the farm has made over the years to run its warehouses and facilities for drying, processing, milling and storing rice. They include wind and solar energy and improvements to its air and water systems, as well as upgrades to lighting, motors and air compressors. In addition, the company has been trying to reduce its waste to improve energy savings, including using rice hulls in a gasifier to supply heat for drying rice.

In a discussion about the importance of social media in agriculture, the three speakers—Miriam Lueck Avery, research manager at the Institute for the Future; Rawn Shah, a strategist for IBM's worldwide sales enablement team; and Ira Brill, director of marketing services at Foster Farms—focused on some of the ways social media is being used for marketing, consumer education and crisis management, and how social media trends will influence agriculture.

Brill said while mass marketing has been used for many years, now there's a growing emphasis on establishing one-on-one relationships with people through social media, which acts as an "amplifier" to traditional media.

"At present, social media is about communication integration, not communication displacement," he said.

In crisis management, social media has rapidly accelerated the pace at which a crisis can spread and the demands on crisis management to contain that spread, Brill said, but he also noted that traditional media continues to act as a major catalyst.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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