A tipping point for the ages occurred in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump. Such dramatic changes almost always reflect deep and strong undercurrents that have built up over time. Several are unfolding now in the food and agricultural arena.
I spent the first week of 2017 in the U.K., meeting with colleagues at Newcastle University, where I am now a Visiting Professor. I also attended and spoke at the Oxford Real Farming Conference (the Ecofarm of the U.K.). Most intriguing fact from my visit – about 50% of the eggs produced in the U.K. come from pasture-raised chickens.
Whether in Northumberland or London, it was hard to escape talk about the likely impact of Brexit on U.K. agriculture and the food industry. Subsidies from the EU account for a huge portion of U.K. farm income, so life post-Brexit is fraught with economic uncertainty throughout the food and farming sectors. Many are wondering if Brexit, and the inevitable sizable reduction in subsidies for U.K. farmers that will accompany it, prove to be a tipping point? And if it does, who will tip and in which direction?
Both in the U.S. and U.K., the farm-labor fallout from expected changes in immigration policy are acute concerns. The U.K. horticultural industry is bracing for major labor shortages next harvest season, with or without new measures that reduce the flow of seasonal workers and low-wage immigrants. Ditto, farmers and the food industry throughout the western U.S., in Florida, and wherever labor-intensive crops, trees, and vines must be planted, pruned, or picked.
In a January 11, 2017 “In the News” item, we highlight how the chair of the U.S. National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) Randy Moore has called Dannon’s pledge to shift three of its yogurt brands to non-GE ingredients and non-GE dairy cow feed “a tipping point” that demands a strong response. This response came in the form of a remarkable letter from several leaders of large US farming organizations, including the National Corn Growers Association and the NMPF, to the CEO of Dannon-USA, Mariano Lozano.
People rarely eat genetically engineered (GE) #2 yellow field corn. The vast majority is used to make ethanol, feed livestock, or produce highly processed products like corn oil and high-fructose corn syrup. The rest is exported. The same is true for GE soybeans – a tiny fraction of the annual harvest is consumed by people in form that contains intact, genetically altered proteins.
For these reasons, the planting, harvest, sale, and use of U.S.-grown, GE corn and soybeans by the U.S. food industry has not been impacted to any significant extent by consumer concerns over GE food safety.
But now the Dannon pledge promises to do just that. It will expand the demand for non-GE corn and soybean-based dairy cow feed. It will incentivize dairy farmers contracted to ship non-GE milk to Dannonyogurt plants to grow non-GE corn and soybean varieties, bypass GE-Roundup Ready alfalfa, and forego byproducts from sugar extraction from GE sugarbeets.
A portion of growers making the transition to non-GE feedstuffs will likely find ways to take the added steps required to transition to organic milk production, a sector also experiencing rapid growth in demand and also offering access to sizable price premiums.
On top of the changes brought about by the Dannon pledge, consumer demand is also booming for milk from cows fed a 100% grass and forage-based diet. The fatty acid profile in 100% grass milk is vastly superior to conventional whole milk, and it tastes so much better to many consumers.
What Will Drive Tipping Points in 2017 and Beyond?
It is far more likely that deep and wide changes in consumer demand and preferences across dairy product offerings will trigger a tipping point in the dairy sector, than advertising campaigns and protest letters from agricultural and food industry PR groups.
Likewise, the flurry of PR-driven activity in support of modern biotechnology is also likely to deliver few benefits to those companies, organizations, individuals, and institutions that have already doubled-down on ag biotech.
Independent science emerging all over the world is highlighting the gaping differences between the actual costs, benefits, and risks of first-generation GE crop technology has it has been deployed, and the rosy scenario promised by the industry.
Almost every day a new scientific study is published documenting either growing problems with the performance of first-generation GE crops, or possible health or environmental risks from the crops, or more commonly, the pesticides the crops depend on and/or produce internally.
We have flagged several examples in recent Hot Science items, see e.g., Cutting Edge Science Raises New Worries re Formulated Glyphosate-Based Herbicides, Seminal Study Documents Unintended Consequences in GMO Corn, and One More Bt Corn Trait Bites the Dust.
Political tipping points happen for a lot of the same reasons as economic, technological, and cultural tipping points. I sense several food and agricultural tipping points are getting nearer, and suspect that changes in consumer attitudes and demand, here and abroad, will become the dominant factors driving the direction of this change. Shifting attitudes in the scientific community, driven by (surprise, surprise) new science, will run a close second.
Much of the food industry seems to have gotten the memo and is reworking supply chains, recipes, and relationships with growers as quickly as possible in a sector that is tied to annual cycles. There remains, after all, a time to plant and a time to reap. There is also a time when the process of change becomes irreversible, and when that change is in a new direction, it is what most of us think of as a “tipping point.”