Definitions for innovation and sustainability across the globe were discussed in Manhattan as Kansas State University hosted the Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock’s ninth annual multi stakeholder partnership meeting. While conference participants and international livestock leaders may have had differing methodologies, attendees united over a desire for a brighter future for agriculture.
“Innovation is indeed a process but it has to be nurtured, it has to be developed and encouraged through a number of supporting systems,” said Scott Hutchins, Deputy Under Secretary of Research, Education, and Economics for the United States Department of Agriculture. “Whether it’s a regulatory system or intellectual property rights or really creating an appetite for risk, we need to have entrepreneurs make a change and move forward.”
In a panel discussion on innovation and policy, Hutchins spoke with other international experts on future innovations in agriculture and market disruption. For Elanco animal well-being consultant Michelle Calvo-Lorenzo, disruptive innovations come in a variety of forms.
“When it comes to positively disruptive innovations, I feel like a lot of us think about those that have to do with data technology — so those that have to do with large databases, artificial intelligence, genomics, big data analytics or smart technology,” Calvo-Lorenzo said.
Hutchins said innovations in agriculture are easy to miss or depreciate because they often happen slowly over time.
“If you look the at history of where we have been and where we are, because it happens day by day, week by week and year by year, we sometimes lose sight of the productivity and sustainability increases that occur,” Hutchins said. “Going forward there’s really going to be four major areas that we can find innovation from a technology stand point.”
Advanced genetics, digital agriculture, artificial intelligence, and whole-farm management are areas Hutchins said spelled the way forward for farmers and ranchers. For New Zealand representative and professor at Massey University, Nicola Shadbolt, living in the age of information could be the most disruptive innovation.
“For me, the disruption on the horizon is real-time information,” Shadbolt said. “Real-time information — whether that be on the farm level… or a consumer that’s making a decision about purchase, is key going forward.”
American representatives went head-to-head on the topic of government involvement in sustainability and trade during a panel discussion, with U.S. Dairy Export Council President Tom Vilsack and Jason Hafemeister with USDA’s office of Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs each voicing their views.
“I think it’s fair to say that consumers are indeed more interested in knowing where their food comes from and how it is being produced today,” Vilsack said. “Unfortunately, I think that many times consumers are misinformed or don’t have all of the information they need to make a decision as informed as they want to make.”
For Vilsack, government has a vital role to place in providing reliable consumer information and aiding sound selection habits. In Vilsack’s philosophy, in addition to that role, the government should also equip producers to respond to sustainability challenges through regulation and incentives.
“In terms of the government’s role in trade, I think first and foremost the government has to establish sort of rules of the road,” Vilsack said. “Governments have to recognize that the climate is indeed changing and it is going to have an impact on how we produce, where we produce and what we produce.”
For Hafemeister, government involvement would be less about regulation and more about allowing consumer demand to determine markets both domestically and abroad.
“I don’t think you can find a sustainable political solution if you try to kind of cram standards down people’s throats,” Hafemeister said. “We’re much more likely to have sustainable outcomes when people can say they value clean water, or clean air, less pesticides or healthy animals and can exercise their choice.”
Trade especially plays a part in Hafemeister’s vision for better sustainability.
“We need to recognize that trade is fundamental to achieving sustainability,” Hafemeister said. “Trade at its very core is about competition and allowing competition gives us the chance to increase productivity, efficiency, specialization.”
Competition encourages investment and innovation but on the flip side, competition can lead to cut corners, Hafemeister said. Vested interests trying to hijack natural competition would be controlled by government intervention.
For Vilsack, the ideal sustainability situation happens in a sort of perfect storm, where trade partners, foreign and domestic consumers and producers all align.
“If we have a common definition of sustainability, if we have informed consumers and the right policies incenting the right type of activity, then the ability to enter in to trade agreements reinforces sustainability to become a bit easier,” Vilsack said. “But if we have different definitions, if we have different expectations and acknowledgements of the challenges of a changing climate, if we have different government programs that activities but not consistently, and if we don’t provide consumers with accurate information, I think it would be really hard for the government to do what it needs to do.”