Tom Nassif, Western Growers
Tom Nassif, Western Growers

I believe the American farmer has a moral obligation to act as a steward of the land, making the most efficient use of our limited resources to provide food for our nation and the world.

Here in the U.S., we have access to fertile soil, water (if it is not restricted by our policymakers), capital, technology, and American ingenuity that is simply not found anywhere else in the world. However, we are entering an era of unparalleled challenges and opportunities that will stretch our ability to continue providing a safe and secure food supply both domestically and abroad. The only way we will produce enough food will be through advanced technology development which will serve to diminish the environmental impacts of farming and reduce our reliance on an increasingly diminishing human workforce. What lies before us?

By 2050 there will be about 9 billion people to feed. The middle class will increase from 1.5 billion people to 4.5 billion and they will demand better food choices — more fresh produce is one of those choices. Global production must increase by 70% to meet this demand.

While the demand for food increases, the world’s resources are becoming ever-scarcer. Arable rain-fed cropland in many parts of the world is being exhausted; soil losses and erosion are plaguing many parts of the world resulting in dust bowls across northern China and central Africa while other soil-poor countries grow increasingly dependent on food imports and aid.

Observers have noted that civilization can survive the loss of its oil reserves, but it cannot survive the loss of its soil reserves. In addition, the depletion of aquifers is fast-shrinking the amount of irrigated land in many parts of the world. The World Bank reports that in China, 130 million people are being fed with grain that is produced by over-pumping; in India, the number is 175 million.

Here in the U.S., as we are well aware, irrigated land is shrinking in key agricultural states such as California and Texas. In the San Joaquin Valley, over-pumping is causing the subsidence of the land, in some areas at the rate more than 1 foot per year.

Urbanization continues to take cropland out of production. Today, 54% of the world’s population lives in urban areas. By 2050, two out of every three people — 67% — will live in cities.

Without advancements in technology, the environmental impacts of doubling our food supply could potentially push our planet over the proverbial cliff. Furthermore, in light of our continued reliance on an increasingly unreliable supply of labor, the agricultural industry must take a giant leap into the “Precision Ag Era.”

The Precision Ag Era will be defined by growers being better able to identify challenges and implement real-time solutions to reduce inputs and waste and increase yields — like Gill’s Onions, which became the first food processing facility in the world to produce ultraclean energy from its own waste; and Houweling’s Tomatoes, which recently installed the first-of-its-kind heat-and-power generation technology at its greenhouse operations that captures wasted heat, water and carbon dioxide for re-use.

I, along with others, believe imaginative approaches to encouraging innovation and technological advancement in agriculture is the key to managing limited resources and feeding the world in the future.

Western Growers is actively supporting the advancement of innovative solutions.

To spur the development of vital technologies, we have been engaging in accelerator and incubator programs for startup companies.

The purpose of these accelerator and incubator programs is to provide opportunities for mentorship, collaboration, and direct access to the top research and development staff from the largest fresh produce companies in the world.

Through our interactions with these startup companies, we have observed numerous brilliant ideas.

There is a fresh food recycler, California Safe Soil, that captures food before it rots and converts into a liquid fertilizer; and there is Harvest Automation that is developing robots to supplement farm labor, reduce water usage, increase yield, and improve weed and pest control.

There is a software company, Lotpath, that creates and provides custom solutions and tablet apps to collect and analyze data for all aspects of food production, and other cutting-edge innovative enterprises taking our problems to task and finding technological solutions.

With a growing population, unprecedented demand for food, and the changing climate and subsequent depletion of natural resources, the future of global food security will be put to the test.

Historically, agriculture — especially American agriculture during the 20th century — has been able to surpass each new challenge with a combination of innovation and hard work.

Our aim is to advance technology innovation in the fresh produce industry thereby improving our ability to produce more food in more efficient ways.

This is the future and it will be the innovators and adapters most able and ready to take advantage of the opportunities.

Tom Nassif is president and CEO of Western Growers, Irvine, Calif. This column is adapted from a speech he made this month at the National Council of Agricultural Employers annual meeting.

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