Agricultural economics professors

Dan Petrolia, from left, associate professor of agricultural economics at Mississippi State University; Bert Greenwalt, professor of agricultural economics at Arkansas State University; Russell Robertston, Staplcotn, Greenwood, Miss.; and Ethan Goggans, Community Bank, Hattiesburg, Miss., were among those attending the annual meeting of the Mississippi Agricultural Economics Association.

Agriculture’s great story too often not being told

"Our future in agriculture looks incredibly bright. There's a lot of consolidation going on, but it's going to be for the better. It's going to help us as an industry to provide more comprehensive tools to help growers become more profitable, more efficient, and more productive." - Shane Hand, Bayer Crop Science

Every minute of every day, five people in the world die of starvation, says Shane Hand. “The challenge we have as an agriculture industry is to find ways to move that number from five to zero,” he said at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Agricultural Economics Association at Mississippi State University.

As the world moves toward a predicted 1 billion more people by the year 2030, a concurrent challenge, he says, will be winning more converts to the importance — the necessity — of an efficient, productive, technological agriculture in feeding and clothing a growing population, including a burgeoning middle class.  

Hand, who is director of marketing for Bayer Crop Science’s digital farming initiatives at Research Triangle, N.C., says as the general population is increasingly removed from a connection to farming, it’s important that agriculture promotes a public dialogue about food production and the innovation and technologies that make possible higher yields on less land.

In 2015, Bayer launched a program called AgVocate —a combination of agriculture and advocate — aimed at fostering conversation between agriculture and consumers about modern farming methods that make possible a reliable food supply at a reasonable cost.

“Agriculture has a great story to tell,” says Hand, “but too often it’s not being told.” This, even as surveys continue to show U.S. farmers among the country’s most respected and trusted citizens.

FACTUAL VS. EMOTIONAL

But he says, those same surveys show high percentages of consumers support stricter laws and regulations, think agribusiness companies aren’t responsible, and have a negative perception of GMOs.

“There’s a lot in the news today about biotechnology, farming practices, GMOs, etc. These stories aren’t only affecting agriculture, they’re affecting the landscape of what agriculture could look like if the trend continues to 2030. We’ve got to do a better job of changing these stories.

“We haven’t done a very good job of that, and it’s one of the areas we really need to focus on” in bridging the gap between the factual and the emotional in news about agriculture.”

He showed a video clip from the Jimmy Kimmel Live late night TV show in which an interviewer asks people on the street, “What are GMOs, and do you avoid them?” The answers (or non-answers) are wildly nebulous and hilarious. (Click here to watch the video.)

“We all laugh when we see this,” says Hand. “But these are the types of consumers we have to become more familiar with, and give them factual information about today’s agriculture.”

The Bayer Crop Science AgVocate initiative, in which other agribusiness companies are cooperating, emphasizes education (“actively training employees, consumers, and their peers to be able to tell the true story about agriculture and modern farming”), activation (“identifying and inspiring new voices to speak out on behalf of modern agricultural practices”), and engagement (“programs designed to get these messages out”).

INVALUABLE FARMER FEEDBACK

 “We have a program called ‘Making Science Make Sense,’” Hand says. “We send teams to elementary schools to talk about the cultural acceptance of modern agricultural practices — all across the globe, not just in the U.S.  We have relationships and collaborate with other companies in this effort, and in offering STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] opportunities. We also work through a lot of media hubs, both online and offline.”

Hand says Bayer Crop Science seeks face-to-face feedback from farmers through participation in the Top Producers Executive Network (TPEN), which includes growers in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. “We ask them, ‘How can we be better as an industry in supporting you and your farming business, so we can meet your needs in growing more food for an increasing global population?’ The feedback we receive is invaluable.”

CHALLENGE IS EDUCATION

He showed a video in which farmers and agribusiness representatives talk about the future of agriculture. Among the comments:

• “One of the greatest challenges to the farmer and the industry is getting people to be excited about farming again. What strikes me most about modern agriculture is the opportunities. I’m aging, and it’s exciting to me to see what’s coming down the pike in agriculture.”

• “It’s an exciting time to see the technologies that are being developed and the impact that they can have on our business.”

• “Today, when tractors can operate on their own in the field, with all the monitoring capabilities, computer sciences, and data technologies that really help us leverage the productivity of our farms, we need to show the public the facts about what farmers really do — that we’re here to help them live a better life.”

• “We’ve got to become more partners with everyone, to work together with our neighbors to tell our story.”

• “Just getting the public involved and knowing what’s going on on a farm — the challenge is education, I think. Consumers tend to listen to the loudest voice, and that’s not necessarily the right one. Consumers drive public policy, and that public policy influences our ability to find the solutions needed to feed a growing global population.

• “I don’t think they understand the benefit that we bring to our communities, what wonderful stewards we are of the land, air, and water.”

• “We can’t fight this battle alone. We need help in understanding the technology that’s in the pipeline to help us find the solutions to feed the growing population.”

SHAPING AGRICULTURE'S FUTURE

“Everyone in this room is in some way, shape, or form connected to the world of agriculture,” Hand told the MSU group. “I encourage each of you to become an AgVocate for modern agricultural practices. This is the only way we’re going to be able to shape and mold the future of farming into what it has the capability and potential to be.

“Our future in agriculture looks incredibly bright. There’s a lot of consolidation going on, but it’s going to be for the better. It’s going to help us as an industry to provide more comprehensive tools to help growers become more profitable, more efficient, and more productive. What differentiates us as an industry is innovation, a winning spirit, and the culture associated with those attributes.”

Product innovation “is what’s going to get our industry a seat at the table to deliver that message,” Hand says. “Consumers will also play a very important part, and we need to have a much closer connection with them.

(This is the second of two parts. Click here to read the first article.)

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