Feeding the World and Protecting the Planet

By Michael McCain, President and CEO, Maple Leaf Foods Inc.

There’s a social trend that’s manifesting with increasing frequency:  consumers’ conflicted  feelings about technology.  Most people seek the most technologically advanced medical care, especially when illness strikes.  Most of us depend on our iPhone for connection, information, directions and so much more and feel utterly lost when they are misplaced.  But when it comes to food, technology has an astounding ability to provoke anxiety.  In fact, it often seems that as a society, we romanticize low-tech approaches to food production.

In some ways, this is understandable. Food is strongly associated with memories and humans naturally recall moments like eggs prepared fresh on a grandparent’s farm, corn picked in the field behind a house and apples fresh from a tree.  I have my own memories of growing up in an agricultural family in the Canadian Maritimes with strong engagement in potato and meat production during a different, “lower tech” era.  At the same time, my rational self knows that food production in generations past was charming, but it simply could not sustain the global population today.

Not only do we need to produce more food, we need to do it in a way that protects the planet. According to the UN, our global population of 7.3 billion people may reach 9.7 billion by 2050. Food demand is expected to increase anywhere between 59% to 98% by 2050.  This exponentially larger demand for nutrition cannot be satisfied without embracing the best ag-tech can offer in terms of productivity, protecting the environment, producing safe food and ending food insecurity and associated nutrition deficiencies. 

Yet we hear a common refrain about the environmental and social impacts of large scale “industrialized’ agriculture. Industrialized seems to be code for “large” and “different” from the past.  I would argue that industrialized agriculture DONE RIGHT is the very thing that will both feed and save the planet.  How?  With thoughtful use of technology.

When environmental scientist Jules Pretty, a professor at the University of Essex, advanced the new term “sustainable intensification” in 1997, his concept raised some eyebrows as almost oxymoronic.  Still, he challenged the idea that increased productivity is detrimental to the environment, arguing instead that thoughtful intensification that leveraged science could serve the environment, society and the farmers themselves.  

We can see Pretty’s vision manifested in new strategies like regenerative agriculture,  farming and grazing practices with the potential to reverse climate change.  How?  Regenerative agricultural practices can rebuild soil organic matter and restore degraded soil biodiversity, which draws carbon into the soil instead of releasing it into the environment.   This approach reverses our reliance on tillage, chemicals and fertilizes and offers us new hope for the future of food.

At my own company, we use a host of technologies from our farms, though our food manufacturing facilities and all the way to our customers to reduce our carbon footprint.  What we can’t yet reduce, we offset with investment in high impact and certified environmental projects that enable us to be world’s first major carbon neutral food company.  We see technology as the means to reduce our footprint even further going forward to decrease our need to offset.  

The transportation sector offers agriculture an inspirational lesson.  Most everyone recognized  automobiles’ environmental impacts, but we didn’t return to riding horses to work. Instead, stakeholders partnered in recognition of the need for better, more efficient cars, and this spurred innovation. Great R&D, supported by government tax credits and subsidies and increasing interest among consumers in the environment, have propelled the sales of hybrid and electric cars, now mainstream options.

We can and must make food and agriculture technology similarly mainstream.  I believe deeply that thoughtful technology expansion in food and agriculture can improve productivity, reduce food insecurity and protect (or dare I say restore!) the planet, but it will require a combination of the ingenuity, private and public investment in research and development.  It also requires honest engagement with stakeholders to overcome the discomfort that tech in food and ag can create.

Food and agriculture must lead governments and other stakeholders to build a system that will feed and protect the planet.  It’s not just achievable; it’s imperative.

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Mr. McCain has devoted his career to the food industry, starting at McCain Foods in the late 1970s. Since 1995 he has been instrumental in establishing Maple Leaf Foods as a strong and sustainable, values-based company. Mr. McCain and his team are deeply committed to being the global leader in sustainable proteins, reflected in ambitious goals in the advancement of nutrition, reducing antibiotic use in livestock, animal care, environmental sustainability, and enhancing food security nationally and globally.

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