Age of scarcity has begun

Published on: Nov 5, 2013

The era of affluence is over and the age of scarcity has begun, according to Erich Erber, chair and founder of BIOMIN in opening the company's first American Nutrition Forum this week in San Antonio, Texas. Erber pointed to Norman Borlaug's green revolution as well as the Philippine Rice Research Center's work with improved rice yields as the start of the age of affluence, when the general food price trend declined until 1999.

In 1999, Erber noted, was the end of the decade that saw 1 billion people added to the global population. It was also when the 1933 Glass Steagall Act, originally enacted to control market speculation, was dismantled, which allowed banks to bet on their own financial performance. These events altered global economics and food policy, he said.

As the world economizes food production, Erber noted a few actions agriculture can take, including: (1) increasing vertical integration to control processes in which farms will follow raw materials, (2) innovation to add revenue such as from biogas and algae and (3) artificial intelligence and robotics will expand in agriculture.

Intensification key to food production

In order to feed 9 billion people while maintaining global biodiversity, Dr. Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Federation said stakeholders must create awareness that is science based while acknowledging that everyone interprets science differently, and then build consensus across industries/sectors. Speaking at the BIOMIN forum, Clay said given the choice between a child or a tree, the child wins every time. He noted that the conservation world has won some battles but is losing the war.

Clay explained that it isn't just population growth that is a concern but also increasing incomes globally that will double consumption. Because of this, he said businesses must review their operating plans every 8-10 months instead of every 3-5 years. He noted that about 100 countries with about 60% of the global population grew their gross domestic product more than 5% during the recent recession, which really only affected Europe and the U.S.

Specific to food production, Clay said more needs to be produced from less -- instead of maximizing one variable, several must be optimized -- and intensification is key. The real question is which production system(s) are best to double productivity. To determine this, he reiterated the axiom "you manage what you can measure," so what do you measure?

Environmental impact message not getting through

Also speaking to the intensification of agriculture at the BIOMIN forum, Dr. Frank Mitloehner of the University of California-Davis pointed out that while environmentalists are discussing intensification more, that message is not getting through to the general public. Mitloehner added that there is a direct inverse relationship between productivity and environmental footprint, but that message is also not being communicated to the public or to policy-makers.

Mitloehner explained that management of reproduction and production efficiencies are likely the best tools to reduce animal agriculture's environmental footprint. While intensifying production reduces the environmental impact of that production, Mitloehner said high production practices are controversial.

He suggested that developed countries focus on waste management to reduce the environmental impact of livestock but emerging countries should focus on improving livestock efficiencies. There are large opportunities to dramatically reduce the environmental impact of livestock, he said.

He pointed out that the U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization is now discussing production intensification as a key to environmental mitigation, but he noted that removing proven technologies is the greatest threat.