DECATUR — Brett Begemann refuses to believe those without a direct connection to farming are wrong about the agriculture industry.
By listening to all perspectives, Begemann,president and chief commercial officer of St. Louis-based seed maker Monsanto Co., said those in the industry will be better-positioned to meet the needs of the increasing world population. Begemann was one of the speakers Wednesday during the Global Agribusiness Summit organized by Tate & Lyle and held in Kirkland Fine Arts Center at Millikin University.
“They’re just seeing things through a different lens than I am,” Begemann said. “I have no doubt in my mind this industry can do it. We’ve done it before. I have little doubt we can figure out an innovative approach.”
The conference was intended to bring together leaders in the agriculture industry to discuss and share ideas about the world’s economic future. Millikin hosted a similar program about 30 years ago, and it is an event that industry leaders are hoping to revive, said Chris Olsen, vice president of community and government affairs at Tate & Lyle.
“This is the most exciting time we’ve been involved in certainly in my lifetime and probably well beyond that,” said Mary Shelman, director of the agribusiness program at Harvard Business School. “This is the most important industry in the world. It’s one where we can actually make a difference.”
The industry is changing as consumers change the way they get their food and have a different set of issues they care about, Shelman said. The world population is becoming increasingly middle class, especially in such places as China, Brazil and Africa, she said.
As the population becomes wealthier, Shelman said their diets change to add more meat. That changes what food needs to be available and where, she said.
Food prices noticeably went up in 2007 and have stayed above the trend line since, Shelman said.
“It means money can filter into farmers more,” she said. “Consumers are also a little less happy about paying more for food.”
Being able to develop ways to make affordable food is one of the challenges facing agribusinesses, Begemann said. “They cannot afford another increase in the cost of food,” she said. “We can’t get there on acres alone. We have to find productivity gains on acres being used already. That’s where, I believe, lies the opportunity.”
Begemann said Monsanto must be able to meet expectations of corporate responsibility as the industry is challenged to produce more as it conserves the environment.
“We have to get better at doing it,” Begemann said. “We have to find more efficient ways of doing it.”
The industry must be able to continue producing during challenging conditions such as the drought it faced last year, Shelman said. Companies such as John Deere & Co. are trying to meet those challenges with improved technology, said Cory Reed, senior vice president of global marketing services for the Moline-based agriculture equipment maker.
John Deere operates in 160 countries around the world, which Reed said makes it important for the company to relate with customers facing different market conditions.
“The general economic outlook for agriculture has never been more positive,” Reed said. “But it’s also fragile.”
Labor remains a necessity, but Reed said the availability of workers is shifting in places where it is needed, including China. “It’s one of the things driving technology in agriculture,” Reed said. “It’s about doing more with fewer people.”
The drought exposed weaknesses in the federal government’s ability to respond to those types of natural disasters, said Colleen Callahan, Illinois director for U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development. Callahan spearheaded an effort to get agencies working together better and provide resources that already are available to help farmers.
“My challenge is to activate the auger across these agencies so we can let out what’s in there so it can be utilized,” she said. “It began to resonate very loudly at the end of the year when we didn’t know we were going to get the precipitation.”
One example of government agencies coordinating efforts better than in the past was in keeping the Mississippi River at St. Louis open to navigation throughout the winter, Callahan said.
Developing ways to coordinate available resources will help in the future, she said.
“We hope there never will be a drought that covers two-thirds of the country again,” Callahan said. “The likelihood is great that somewhere there will be drought. This work is important so we can respond and mitigate the effects of the drought as it happens.”
The drought showed the significance of having not only land available for agricultural production but protecting precious water resources, Shelman said. About 70 percent of the world’s fresh water supply is used for agriculture, a burden that will only increase as more food production is needed, she said.
Monsanto is well aware that the issue of of water availability needs to be addressed, Begemann said.
“It’s obvious we can’t double the supply of water,” he said. “We have to figure out how to utilize water and increase productivity.”
A portion of Monsanto’s research is on display during the Farm Progress Show, which returns to Decatur on Aug. 27 to 29 at Progress City USA. Monsanto will be introducing its first drought-resistant products in the western Corn Belt this year, Begemann said.
Those products are being tested in Illinois to see if it works in this area. If it does, Begemann said the company will work on making it available to more farmers.
Decatur’s hosting of the Farm Progress Show and its position in the agriculture industry made it an ideal place to hold the conference, said Bob Flider, director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
“Decatur is considered to be the soybean capital of Illinois,” Flider said. “It’s the prime agribusiness center in Illinois. Each year, $162 billion is spent in food processing in Illinois, and much of that occurs right here in Decatur.”