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Agriculture, Food System ‘At an Inflection Point’

Charlie Arnot

photo credit: AFBF Photo, Terri Moore

“December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy.” This memorable quote from President Franklin Roosevelt memorialized the bombing of Pearl Harbor and marked the United States’ entry into World War II. Prior to the surprise attack in Hawaii on that Sunday morning some 82 years ago, the U.S. had avoided active participation in the conflict. We were happy to serve as the “armory to the allies,” but nationalistic sentiment was strong and the scars from World War I were still raw. Public sentiment was divided, and we lacked the political will to enter another global conflict — until Pearl Harbor was attacked. The bombing of a U.S. military base fueled the fire of patriotism and the United States responded with full force, ultimately prevailing with the surrender of Germany and Japan in 1945.

Dec. 7, 1941, also fundamentally changed the trajectory of agriculture in the United States. The moment Pearl Harbor was bombed, food security became national security. Victory gardens and ration books that limited the amount of sugar, meat, coffee, butter, canned goods and more became common as our national resources were redirected and targeted to winning the war.

Agriculture was called upon to increase productivity and output as never before. Farmers answered the call by increasing production of core commodities like corn, wheat and cotton by more than 400% in the last eight decades. In the 1950s the mechanization expertise that was used to defeat our military enemies was deployed in agriculture, dramatically reducing the demand for labor and once again increasing productivity and efficiency.

Agriculture and the food system are at an inflection point.

The focus on improving throughput year over year became the driving force for agriculture in the United States over the past 82 years and the results have been remarkable. Today, U.S. farmers produce food, fuel and fiber with remarkable efficiency, increasing output and limiting or reducing inputs year over year.

There is no question that consumers in the U.S. and around the world benefitted from the singular focus on productivity and throughput. What U.S. farmers accomplished over the last eight decades is truly impressive. But today, engaged consumers, investors, policy makers and other key stakeholders have new priorities. They want agriculture to place an equal focus on issues like animal welfare, climate change, health and nutrition, food safety, ethical business practices and the fair and equitable treatment of workers.

Historically consumers were focused on three drivers for purchase — taste, price, and convenience. Many of today’s shoppers are considering multiple drivers for purchase, including impact on the environment, treatment of animals, the relationship between food and health and much more.

And the pressure to focus on more than productivity is not limited to shoppers. Capital providers, policymakers and NGOs are weighing in on a variety of issues that impact how food is grown. Larry Fink is chairman and CEO of Blackrock, one of the largest private equity firms in the world. His focus on climate has increased in his annual letter to shareholders and business leaders over the past three years.

• 2020: “Climate risk is investment risk.”

• 2021: “Transition to Net Zero: The climate transition presents an historic investment opportunity.”

• 2022: “The transition to a net-zero world is the shared responsibility of every citizen, corporation and government.”

Agriculture and the food system are at an inflection point. Stakeholders who buy commodities, capital providers who make financing available and engaged consumers who purchase food are demanding more from agriculture.

As with any change, these new priorities create opportunity and risk. America’s farmers are resilient and innovative, and they will find creative ways to address these emerging priorities. The progress to date is impressive!

To ensure a truly sustainable food system, we need a broader conversation, with stakeholders across the food system about how to equitably distribute the cost and value of addressing climate change, animal welfare and other relevant priorities. Given the resources to find and implement solutions, America’s farmers will respond, just as they did after Dec. 7, 1941.

Charlie Arnot is CEO of The Center for Food Integrity, a national not-for-profit organization dedicated to building consumer trust and confidence in today’s food system. This column was originally published by FarmWeek Now as an opinion piece