by William McNutt
World food supplies have been improving for nearly 50 years, bringing better nutrition to formerly impoverished areas. The so-called Green Revolution with its better seed and cultural practices, has replaced food shortages by nearly half in the past 50 years, while also improving the health of former food short areas. But this has also helped cause world population expansion, now expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, when we could once more find some third world countries in food crisis mode. Ohio Food Dialogues, cosponsored by Ohio Farm Bureau, Ohio Soybean Council, and U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance hosted a conference on this upcoming need in the U.S. and the world, with particular emphasis on biotechnology and sustainability. If expanded effort to meet future food needs is to be carried out successfully without harm to the soil, both will have to be considered, according to Dialogue resource speakers. Genetically modified crops have the potential to increase yields, lower or replace use of chemical pesticides, and modify weed control, among other benefits. Sustainability or the maintenance and improvement of agricultural production is vital to meet the ongoing challenges in feeding an ever-expanding world population.
Food crops modification has taken place all during the history of agriculture, the most notable example in hybridization of corn by selection and crossing of genetic traits, resulting in eventual doubling of yields. Dialogue panel members pointed out that no DNA is altered, and that no ill effects from food with GMO traces have been noted. Animals fed GMO grain carry no signs in final processed meat products or milk production. Additional research emphasis is needed on fruits and vegetables, which are more expensive when processed, with an increasing amount now sold through direct marketing.
Ohio is somewhat unique in having large metropolitan centers centers surrounded by farmland, which makes local direct sales a prime enterprise, with now almost year-round availability due to use of plastic coverings of specialty crops for early growth and high tunnels to extend seasonal high value specialty crops. Use of each helps prevent runoff of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, reducing expenses and preventing pollution.
While many consumers equate fresh and local with organic production, they are not the same; much of our organic soybean seed is coming from China, as domestic growers shun this type of production. While U.S. sales of organic produce continue to grow, that of organic row crops declines, as farmers cite excess record keeping plus the three year period for transition. While organic sales grew 35 percent in the past five years to nearly $30 billion, they are still a small percent of total sales.
Whole Foods, perhaps the best known for upscale organic foods, has started to change tactics by promoting one day special sales events of produce at lower prices than organic offerings, opening stores in more suburbs, and in lower income urban locations. Conventional supermarkets have not lagged behind. Kroger, the largest traditional grocery chain, is expanding their selection of natural and organic products, along with such competitors as Giant Eagle and Meijer, while Walmart has become the biggest seller of organic food in the country.
In the opinion of panel members, we can produce food required by population expansion while also feeding the soil so that it can continue and expand production on approximately the same acreage. A very doable alternative is returning much of the soil formerly used for housing metropolitan populations or industrial sites. An example is Detroit, now with half the city boundaries unoccupied except for abandoned housing and once vibrant manufacturing sites. Youngstown and Cleveland in Ohio offer many of these “brownfield” sites, some of them now cleared, with the underlying soil once again made fertile for the establishment of neighborhood farms.
A more ambitious project envisions the creation of a food district in Columbus, embodying most food production aspects from growing on a former factory site, doing most of the processing in on-site facilities, then marketing finished products in an another onsite cooperative to be developed. Plans drawn so far include a 45,000 square foot building on the nearly four acre site that would serve as an anchor for a food processing center for Ohio meat, produce and dairy production, including produce grown on-site, with space for other small businesses to develop. Brian Williams, agriculture specialist with the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, said long range plans are being completed two years after an $865,000 federal grant to partner with other organizations in setting up and carrying out the mission of the Food District. Williams feels such an operation will keep more food dollars in local communities while offering cheaper and locally grown food sales. While Ohioans spend about $30 billion on grocery and restaurant food each year, less than 10 percent of that food is grown locally.
While panel members in the Food Dialogues seminar did not feel such efforts will lessen needed expansion of food production in the future, they did see such an enterprise as a means of addressing specific nutritional needs in designated areas, particularly those with high unemployment and low income, plus health problems ensuing from factors such as these.