Big supermarkets are driving food production, highlighting importance of traceability, management practices: consultant
PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE, Man. — Contrary to what most North American farmers believe, finicky European food trends are not driven by consumer demand or ivory tower agencies.
Instead, supermarkets pull the strings, says Michael Horsch.
Horsch is best known in Western Canada for his Maestro corn planter and zero till drills, but back home in Germany, he serves on numerous food-related think-tanks, corporate boards, non-governmental organizations and an advisory committee for Lidl, one of the largest grocery chains in Europe.
He spends as much time dealing with the politics and philosophies of food as he does inventing new equipment.
Talking to a group of 50 farmers in the Portage area last spring, Horsch said the organic trend will never cover broad acres, but honest food likely will.
“Organic food is only for the rich. It’s a niche market. It stays a niche market,” he said.
“Each organic farmer, he knows damn well if every farmer would be doing what he is doing, he’s out of business. It’s going to be a growing niche market, but it’s only the wealthiest part of society that’s going for organic food. But the average part of society, they will not…. They will not go for organic if there’s another option.
“And that other option is called honest food. Europe is setting new standards in what’s called honest food. It’s something you farmers should understand because it’s going to hit you guys soon.”
Horsch said honest food has a documented history of what it is, where it came from and how it was grown.
Honest food is prevalent in Europe and big data is growing in North America. When the two meet, it’s going to change farming in most of the world.
“I’m in a think-tank for a major supermarket chain,” he said.
“They want traceability. That’s what they get from big data. Once they see what’s in the food, if they don’t like it, they won’t buy it.
“They’ll tell farmers on both sides of the ocean, ‘no more glyphosate, no growth regulators, no GMO, no hormones in wheat.’ What can farmers do then? The major grocery chains just won’t buy.
“The big supermarket chains are behind this, even though there’s not a scientific base for their actions. It’s more of a religion than science. Supermarkets are taking the initiative to prevent GMOs and other things they don’t like. It is not consumer driven. They hope the consumers eventually make those demands, but right now supermarkets are driving it.”
Horsch said genetic modification has helped farmers around the world efficiently grow corn and soybeans for the past 30 years. However, he thinks this efficient method of food production is coming to an end.
“Where I live, it isn’t the law that’s going to prevent GMO soybeans, it’s the supermarkets,” he said.
“They tell the dairy farmer they won’t accept dairy products if big data says they’re GMO.
“We can’t grow soybeans in Europe because of our climate, so 90 percent of our protein is imported from Brazil and North America, and they’re all GMO, of course.
“Then the supermarkets tell the dairy farmer he has no choice but to stop buying soybean products from Brazil and North America. So then does he go out of business or what does he do?”
Horsch said a reduction in diversity has been a major problem in agriculture.
“We have to be honest with ourselves about our mistakes,” he said.
“With 30 years of intensive farming all over the word, what have we done? We’ve gotten rid of diversity. We’ve gotten rid of our old healthy rotations that had four or five or six years between each crop. Now we’re down at two-year rotations or straight monocrop.
“Mother Nature wants diversity. If she doesn’t get diversity, she’s going to force the issue. We’re getting caught right now.”
Horsch said he has known South Dakota zero till researcher Dwayne Beck for many years.
Beck is known for his work in long rotations, some with as many as nine different crops in the plan. He advocates for crops such as camelina and has said that if there’s no market for them, farmers should grow them anyway for the health of their land and then develop a market.
“I never used to agree with all those things Dwayne Beck said, but I’m afraid I have to admit I was wrong. I agree with him now,” Horsch said.
“In Europe, we’re facing severe problems right now because we’ve lost our diversity. Our main crop is winter wheat, up to 60 percent on many farms. But we were suddenly hit with black rust. It came so quickly, it took everyone by surprise.
“Now, many farmers cutting back their winter wheat acreage by half. But what can they grow for a cash crop on those other acres? They have no replacement on those acres. So they grow cover crops or crops where they only break even. That’s what happens when you’ve lost your diversity.”
He said forages are necessary for long-term sustainability and crop health, but beef cows have to be in the mix as a way to market those forage crops.
“That’s another bad (thing) happening in Europe today: there’s a great movement away from meat,” he said.
“This is not a small thing. It’s a major movement to get people to stop eating beef.
“What can we do about it? The mind of the general public is changing by manipulation. We’re now afraid that in Europe we will lose glyphosate, not in 15 years as we had thought, but maybe right now.”
Horsch is on the board of an NGO that deals with aid to Third World countries, and his travels often bring him to Africa, Asia and India. He said the experience has given him a new perspective on the cheap food concept.
“When grain prices are high, Third World farmers make money. They are able to find buyers for their grain, rice and corn,” he said.
“In these struggling areas, 90 percent of the poor live on farms. They’re out in the country, so they benefit directly from high grain prices. They want high grain prices.
“What happens when the global market sees $3 corn and $4 wheat? We build up huge inventories again and end up dumping surplus on the doorsteps of the Third World again. We’ll throw surplus grain into those countries for nothing, so their farmers can’t earn a living. Why should they work? We’ve destroyed their market.”
Horsch said 70 percent of the world’s grain production comes from a narrow band 2,100 kilo-metres wide and extending from the U.S. west coast to the east coast of China and Russia. Human starvation will rise dramatically if modern agricultural technology is banned from that band of land, he added.