David Anderson, a hydroponics producer, is showcasing some of its products in Marion, TX.
Photo by Paul Schattenberg

Today’s consumers expect more from their food. And that gives food manufacturers profitable opportunities to benefit from trends.

In the past, the goal of agriculture and the American food system was to provide consumers with food, fiber, and fuel. But consumer priorities have evolved.

Consumers today expect a variety of options, including foods that promote human health, have the smallest ecological footprint, are economically sustainable, and meet the needs of a growing human population. It has to do all of this while performing its most basic function: preventing hunger.

Health solutions, multiple choices, different preferences and food trends offer growers new opportunities for farmers and ranchers to meet market needs and reduce the nutritional health costs that cripple economies around the world.

Sound Science shows the way

At the beginning of a new decade we no longer talk about food; we’re talking about nutrition. Consumer needs are more important than ever because, as we say at Texas A&M AgriLife, we not only feed the world, we also feed the world.

That is a lofty goal. Finally, the ecological and economic sustainability of current agricultural practices is uncertain. The public now expects agriculture to lower health care costs, which in turn will require changes in dietary practices.

How do we achieve these goals? It requires scientifically sound solutions. The advocacy of the food system and personal preferences in all its forms must take a back seat to solid, scientific evidence.

The public has been inundated with alarming reports about the foods we eat and the diseases they cause for decades. It is estimated that diet-related chronic diseases cost the US economy $ 1 trillion annually. Half of all adults in the United States are being treated for a chronic illness.

Now is the time for responsive agriculture, where producers develop foods that improve human health and increase the profitability of agriculture to sustain economic prospects. Rigorous science must lead the way if we are to better align human health and the food system.

Ag can increase nutrition

As life scientists and agronomists, we develop products that address community needs and the health, values ​​and preferences of consumers. This leads to crops, feed and other products with higher value, higher yield potential, lower ecological footprint, improved nutritional value and greater resilience to drought, heat and disease.

We are action-oriented and support the health and preferences of consumers, the environment and producers with scientifically based solutions.

AgriLife’s research on sorghum is known for developing varieties of sorghum for the animal feed and energy sectors. Now, grain eaters across the country are learning about the sorghum team’s contribution to healthier human foods. At the forefront of this research is Bill Rooney, Ph.D., millet breeder from AgriLife Research and the Borlaug-Monsanto Chair in Plant Breeding and International Plant Breeding in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at Texas A&M University.

Our sorghum growers focused specifically on the health food market with the development of the black grain sorghum hybrid onyx in 2012. Onyx is a great example of how the nutritional quality of the food supply can be improved to help fight chronic disease. The Sorghum team aimed for higher product quality and human nutrition goals.

The sorghum we have newly developed is a purely natural grain based on old black and tannin-rich varieties of sorghum. These ancient strains combine in each plant a powerful combination of antioxidants that fight a wide range of free radical threats to our bodies. The Onyx Hybrid was chosen to meet the growing public interest in foods with high antioxidant capacity.

Onyx is not only good for consumers but also for producers. A second variety we created, Onyx2, has the same components as the original but offers better yields. One problem with the original onyx was that the yield potential was less than that of commercial grain-sorghum hybrids. We increased yields from the first to the second hybrid by about 25% – proof that research can help both growers and consumers.

What do we do next?

Agriculture is at a crossroads. Expectations to feed the world’s growing population while maintaining environmental and economic sustainability, or the public spotlight, have never been higher than ever.

Exceeding consumer expectations for the food system will require solid science to set policies and practices to ensure people’s health, a healthier planet, and a more sustainable agricultural system. Agriculture, food security and public health are fundamental to our future. Our goal is to ensure health by meeting nutritional needs through integrated research, as has been demonstrated in the life sciences, social sciences, environmental sciences, politics and economics.

Food system advocacy and scientific evidence are all too often segregated, even within the academic community. Through scientific progress, we must build public confidence in all aspects of agriculture and help ensure that it continues to have confidence. It’s the healthiest way forward for Americans, our environment, and our economy. It is indispensable for our country as a whole. Our ability to feed the planet and avoid hunger is at stake.

Since people want to be more connected to their food and demand more from it, we in agriculture have the opportunity to strengthen the connection from farm to table. As this new decade begins, we can make foods that will help prevent chronic disease while preventing hunger, and we can do this together.


Dr. Patrick Stover is Vice Chancellor and Dean of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Texas A&M AgriLife, The Texas A&M University System. See all author stories here.