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Let's get real about the future of food

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Food and agriculture are in the midst of disruption. Dannon recently pledged that all of its flagship brands will go GMO-free. McDonald's has started sourcing sustainable beef in Canada and Brazil, and Campbell's launched a website that explains in great detail all the ingredients in its products and where they come from.

The future of food is in flux. Change is now a constant in our business. At the same time, we're faced with a number of important challenges. How will we feed 9 billion or more people by 2050? How will we tackle the linked challenges of undernutrition and obesity? How will we do all of the above while protecting the planet? To answer these questions and make the best choices, we need to have an informed conversation about the global food system.

At Cargill, we have a unique vantage point. We work with farmers around the world, from small family farms in Indonesia to large-scale operations in Brazil or the American Midwest. We do business with a wide variety food and beverage companies, ranging from multi-billion multinationals to your local upstart craft brewer. We also hear from consumers, and believe me, we're listening.

We don't claim to know it all, but over the years, we've learned a few things:

  • Information is key. There's a lot of it out there, and not everything is accurate. In order to make the right choices about food, both manufacturers and consumers need to get informed.
  • There are tradeoffs involved. The world of food is a complex network with lots of interlocking gears. If you move one, you move the others. That means choices have consequences, which makes information even more vital.
  • There isn't one simple solution. We don't have a silver bullet. To feed a growing world population, and do it without damaging the environment, we'll need all the options on the table.

It's a good thing that people think carefully about what they eat. But not every nuance can be reduced to 140 characters on Twitter. When we talk about the future of food, we're talking about choices that demand careful deliberation and a willingness to listen to each other and learn.

Let's take the example of cage-free eggs. More and more people are demanding that their eggs come from chickens that aren't held in cages. That's why McDonald's recently announced they are transitioning to 100 percent cage-free eggs. McDonald's is a key Cargill customer. We've worked closely with the company to develop hen-housing systems and cage-free supply chains. So I'm not taking a position against cage-free eggs.

What I am saying, is that there are trade-offs involved. Suppose you're a farmer and you want to go cage-free. As a recent Wired story pointed out, you'll be facing some big - and expensive - choices:

  • Do you build a new barn or retrofit an existing one? And what about your existing buildings and equipment?
  • How are you going to survive with one to two thirds less chickens, since without cages each one takes up more space in the barn?
  • Once you take a 20-year loan, how do you know that cage-free eggs are not trend that will fade away while you're still paying for your new barn?

Every choice has consequences. To weigh the options, we need a well-informed discussion.

The same is true, often in even starker terms, of genetically modified organisms. I'm not here to judge anybody who decides they shouldn't eat GMOs because of their personal values. In fact, Cargill is expanding its non-GMO supply chains just for that reason. We're glad that the U.S. now finally has a national GMO labeling law, so both consumers and food makers have clarity. With that legislative work behind us, we can move on and have an open, informed discussion about the issue and how it impacts people and our planet.

Cargill will continue to source GMO crops. They can deliver greater yields on the same amount of land, often with less fertilizer and other chemicals, so that's a win for the environment. In general, whether it's GMO or non-GMO, our focus is on ensuring access to safe, sustainably-sourced, affordable food.

At the same time, Cargill has a growing presence in organic and non-GM products. Something you might not have thought about, is that to produce organic meat, you need organic animal feed, and that's true both on the large and the small scale. Our Nutrena® Nature Smart® poultry feed brand is mainly for small backyard poultry hobbyists who want to raise their own organic eggs. Since we acquired the Norwegian company EWOS last year, we've also become one of the world's main suppliers of organic salmon feed.

These examples demonstrate that food and agriculture will need to work on a wide range of solutions. We'll need a little bit of everything - GM crops and non-GM ones; small farms and large ones; new specialty products like no-calorie sweeteners, and the staples like fats, oils and salt.

The future of food is complex, but we're optimistic, as long as we realize that all the options on the table have consequences, and that there are tradeoffs involved that require careful consideration.

At Cargill, we're always glad to have that conversation.

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