Today’s politics have raised the prospect of radically different trade between the UK, the European continent and the US. At the same time, technologies that could help alleviate our global food gap – like genetic modification – are often misunderstood, misrepresented and disregarded.
American agriculture doesn’t have the best reputation outside North America, with scare stories of mutant crops and chlorinated chicken. And, with nearly 60% of Americans owning either an SUV or a pickup, there is a notion that the US cares less about sustainability than other parts of the developed world.
Current US policy is doing little to address that particular preconception. So, instead, we turned to David Green – once a farmer in his native Northern Ireland and now executive director of the US Sustainability Alliance based in Virginia – to discover how US agriculture stacks up and why the stereotype might be all wrong.
Can you tell us a little about the US Sustainability Alliance and where it came from?
This was basically a programme that comes under the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and it was set up about four years ago. A number of the agricultural and forestry/fishery associations in the US – that’s farm groups, not for profit, who work alongside the USDA in overseas marketing – were coming across sustainability requirements or demands by their customers in Europe so the realisation was that sustainability is a more immediate market issue in Europe than it was in the US at that time. This initiative is funded by the USDA; I’m an advisor to one of the associations that is a member.
We have a membership of 20 of the main farm groups covering crop farming, dairy, seafood, forestry, the leather industry and the organic trade association, so it’s not sort of ‘Big-Ag’ because there are smaller producers, there are husband-and-wife teams in the Alaska seafood initiative and some of the big soy growers. The overall remit was to say “we do take conservation more seriously than perhaps a lot of people think in the US, and here’s a programme that we will try and answer questions and we will try and provide some context to the lack of information that is available to you”.
How does sustainability help your members improve their businesses – what’s the business case?
That’s a good question, because the sustainability requirements have been around for probably at least ten years. It was not a major issue in the US from the food industry, but that has changed over the past two or three years. I’ve worked with soy farmers and maize/corn farmers for a number of years and if I mentioned sustainability to them they’d say “of course I’m sustainable; if I’m not sustainable I’m not going to stay in business”. The approach in the US has been very much looking at ongoing improvement on the farm, how can I farm better, is there technology that I can use that’s going to be safe and that’s going to work for me, and I think that’s the important thing.
And do those farmers get the sense of their wider impact and their wider role?
Very much so. When I was first in the US and I would meet these farmers, they would talk about feeding the world and keeping their family farms in good condition so they could pass it on to the next generation. They feel that what they are doing has a greater impact than just their farms. Of course they’re in business to make money, to feed their families, but they’re also very aware — and I’m talking generally here — certainly the farmers whose farms I’ve gone to, I’ve been humbled by how seriously they take looking after their land. “This is my capital, this is my inheritance… I have to farm it well to be able to pass it on”, and the fact it has a wider environmental benefit is part of that.
When we bring our farmers to Europe they get really surprised at how Europeans will view American agriculture. I’ll give you one example: I was in Austria with some farmers from the United States, and we went to an organic soybean farm, and all of my farmers grew GM soy. The Austrian took us out to see one of his fields and his soybeans were planted not quite a metre apart, but we couldn’t see any weeds. One of the farmers that was with us asked him how he controlled his weeds. The guy said every three days, he takes his tractor and he drives through the rows with a little scraper that follows behind that scrapes the soil and pulls out the weeds.
The US farmer didn’t like to say to him but he said afterwards, “there’s a guy that’s promoting that he is an organic, sustainable soybean farmer and yet every three days he burns diesel going up and down that 15ha field, disturbing the soil”. Soil contains carbon in the form of glomalin, which is a compound that helps the soil stick together. If you disturb the soil, you’re releasing carbon.
Going back to your question, does every farmer think he must look after the environment for the greater good? Who knows? But I can say personally, from the farms that I’ve been on and from working with these different groups that are members of our alliance, they absolutely believe it.
Do you get the sense that American consumers do care nowadays, very passionately, about sustainable products?
Sustainability was not really on the radar of industry until about seven or eight years ago. I think for most consumers they want to know the food is safe, they want to know it’s affordable. If you were to ask the average consumer in a city somewhere about sustainability, they probably wouldn’t know as much about it as they might do in Europe. It’s not a talking point for them. Having said that, there has been a change in attitudes towards food production, particularly among the millennial generation. They want to know how it’s produced, where it’s come from, what practices were used. They want to know like anybody that their food is being produced to the best possible standards, and that it’s safe. The idea that American regulations favour the big companies more, and don’t really protect consumers, when I hear that I think you’ve got to be kidding me! This is the most litigious society on earth! If there had been any GM safety issues, we would have heard about it. Consumers know they have got recourse to the laws that are in place from the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and from the courts.
Do you get dismayed about how seemingly deep-set consumer concern is about GM crops?
What I get dismayed about is not so much consumer rejection, but the rejection by politicians and some NGOs who continually demonise GM crops. I’m not promoting GM crops, it’s not my role or my job — I’m just looking at what I see and what I learn from scientists who assess them. I get disappointed, to put it mildly, at the way people make a judgement without knowing everything about it because it fits their particular mindset.
If you get a GM crop application in Europe, it goes to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and they carry out a scientific assessment and that can take 4-5 years. I was allowed to sit in for a day and a half on one of the sessions, and I was really impressed with how detailed they were — they went through everything line by line. EFSA will come out with a scientific opinion on GM crops — and generally they have had a positive assessment. That then goes to the member states’ standing committee on GM crops to vote on, and there has not been a single vote on GM crops ever that has been approved by the member states because of politics. That’s what the folks in the US find perplexing: Europe set up EFSA as an EU-wide independent food safety agency in the light of a deluge of food crises in the 1990s such as BSE, salmonella in eggs and dioxin in poultry. They come out with their positive assessment. Yet, at the political level, they are not accepted. I follow these results quite a lot: you have to reach a qualified majority under the EU voting process, and consistently 13 of the 28 [member states] have voted against a scientific assessment. That is bizarre, and that’s what really disappoints me more than consumers. Politicians and, to an extent, NGOs are letting consumers down by not following the science. Even as a European it’s perplexing to me.
I understand why: it’s a political issue in a number of countries. What official wants to stand up and say “I’m voting for GM crops”? There are no votes in that. There’s maybe votes to be against, but I think frankly that’s a disgrace and it’s a rejection of European consumers to not give them the assurance that something has been properly assessed — it demonises a product with no scientific basis.
There may be this preconception that farming is old-fashioned but I’m sure, particularly when it comes to sustainability, your farmers wouldn’t agree with that?
Not the farmers that I talk to, no. The adoption of technology in the US is so much faster than in Europe. It’s probably the psyche; people will ask “is there a better way of doing something at less cost – so long as it’s safe?” I mentioned the issue around GM technology: getting a crop approved can take in Europe 6-7 years to go through the regulatory process, in Brazil it’s about 18 months, in Argentina it’s about the same, the US about 2-3 years. So Europe is way behind in adopting new technology that has been shown to be scientifically safe.
If a technology like drones came along, people started looking at them and thinking “these will be nice as a Christmas present, a little gimmick” – but farmers can now send a drone out, check through the fields to see if there’s a problem with the crop, and they don’t have to walk out there. Having talked to a couple of people in England actually about where drones were going, I think there will be drones eventually having laser processor systems where they can identify and ‘zap’ weeds out in the field or ‘zap’ some poorly performing crop. Does that mean that chemicals might be obsolete in 10-15 years’ time? Possibly, I don’t know, but if there’s a better way of doing something people will want to do it.
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