How the Experts Would Fix the Food Crisis

Four experts discuss ways to ensure a growing world doesn’t go hungry
From left, Charles Sweat, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, Craig Wilson, and Richard Leach Photograph by Justin Steele for Bloomberg Businessweek

The challenge of making food nutritious, sustainable, and abundant is hard enough for a nuclear family. Now mix in climate change, volatile markets, and inefficient safety standards—along with a global population estimated to add 2 billion more mouths to feed over the next 25 years—and it’s clear that the food crisis will only become more acute. So how do we fix agriculture? That’s the question Bloomberg Businessweek Chairman Norman Pearlstine put to our panel: Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety, U.S. Department of Agriculture; Richard Leach, President and Chief Executive Officer, World Food Program USA; Charles Sweat, President and Chief Executive Officer, Earthbound Farm; and Craig Wilson, Vice President, Quality Assurance and Food Safety, Costco Wholesale. Their conversation has been condensed and edited.
 
 
One of the things that’s a surprise to anyone new to the subject is the amount of food that’s produced but for one reason or another not consumed. Where might there be opportunities for greater efficiency?
Craig Wilson: Most people don’t understand that the code dates you see on food aren’t related to food safety. Those are quality code dates. Quality declines over time with any given food item, be it a refrigerated item or not. So when the quality goes to a point where it’s no longer salable or consumable, it’s pulled. Companies like ours donate a tremendous amount of food to local services and food banks throughout the world on products that are coming close to that code. Look at those code durations: Can we increase them? Can we improve them and continue working with our valued suppliers?
Elisabeth Hagen: Technology is incredibly important. We want to make sure though that we aren’t focusing our technology just on reactive opportunities. Technology should be focused from a food safety standpoint, first and foremost, on preventive opportunities. Food needs to be safe before it reaches consumers’ tables. So we have lots of opportunity to trace back contaminated food once we know that there’s been an event. That’s really important to mitigate the scope of any given event. But we want to make sure there are adequate technologies out there to prevent that contamination from occurring in the first place.
 
 
From an organic perspective is technology friend or foe?
Charles Sweat: Oh, a friend. Using technology and becoming more efficient is the only way you can scale your business to drive economic value to the consumer. As recently as 15 years ago we were harvesting a lot of our lettuces by hand and knives with employees in fields. We’ve developed mechanical harvesters now that can cut those crops. Hundreds of people went down to three or five. Efficiencies went way up, and price went way down. So technology’s important from the food product system as well as food safety side.
Richard Leach: If you look at the 866 million people suffering from hunger, half are actually farmers—small-scale farmers, mostly women. And when we talk about “What do we need to increase productivity?” we’re talking about technologies that were being used in the U.S. in the late 1800s—irrigation, fertilizers, roads, warehousing. So we can have a significant impact on productivity without a major advance in technology, using techniques we’ve understood for quite some time.
Sweat: That also falls under your conversation about population growth. It’s moving from rural to urban. And if you look at China, for instance, there’s also a demographic shift from rural areas, which are farm producing, into cities as that middle class rises. So you’re losing that labor force in the farm-production aspects of the countries. If we don’t figure out how to increase productivity, we’re going to actually lose volumes being produced today.

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