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Agricultural Forum brings corporate, political chiefs here to plan to feed world

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 17, 2009 - When the World Agricultural Forum convenes in St. Louis today for a three-day session of experts from around the world, the words are more apt to take on the lofty tone of Davos than the overheated rhetoric of Washington.

The approach will be more in favor of corporate agriculture than the organic, sustainable methods that are catching on as a possible viable alternative to feed an estimated 10 billion people by 2050.

There won’t be the nitty-gritty of legislative haggling over often-costly and divisive agricultural policies so often heard on Capitol Hill – and virtually no grandstanding by U.S. politicians.

“We want to produce a venue where decision-makers can come together and share views,” said Leonard Guarraia, founder and CEO of the World Agricultural Forum . Moreover, the conference is light on academics and heavy on policy makers and implementers – as well as businesses that sell to the developing world like seed, fertilizer and farm implement companies.

“This is not for academics. They want to study things to death,” Guarraia said. He added that it was a “fair criticism” when asked why the University of Missouri and the University of Illinois -- two of the country’s top agricultural schools, both land-grant universities -- were not represented at the conference. They were not present in previous years either.

The decidedly unsexy general title outlines the approach: “Our Global Priority: Food Security – Financial, Trade and Technical Strategies.”

If past conferences in St. Louis are any guide, the tone will be polite, the discussions well informed, -- and quick-hit solutions and sound bites rare to nonexistent. And if the past is any guide, the emphasis will be on finding technological solutions to a possible looming food crisis, as well as cooperative arrangements between some environmental groups and agribusinesses to solve specific problems.

World Agricultural Forum officials believe the corporate-technological route is more likely to be able to do the job than the way advocated by such critics as Michael Pollan , author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” “The Botany of Desire” and “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto."

Bringing Business Groups Together

“We were very deliberate with this agenda,” said Kathy Moldthan, executive vice president of the World Agricultural Forum.

“The agricultural sector is very vertically siloed. We see ourselves as horizontal integrators. The World Agricultural Forum has a unique role in bringing business groups together.”

Paying close attention to the several speeches and roundtable discussions via the Internet will allow the public to tune in to the thoughts of knowledgeable leaders in global agriculture. Previous forums were held here in 1999, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2007. Also available are periodic newsletters that discuss current topics, such as the tradeoffs between growing corn and soybeans for food and for biofuels.

The forum, sponsored by foundations and agribusinesses, is spending about $300,000 to fly in some of the 200 or so guests who will participate in the conference.

Sponsorship at the $100,000 level allows the donor to give a major speech, have its logo printed on program materials and in other ways raise its profile before those at the conference.

The speakers and guests range from James B. Bolger, forum chairman, former prime minister of New Zealand and a well-known presence at the congresses, to Carl Hausmann, president and CEO of Bunge North America; Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau; N. Raghuveera Reddy, agriculture minister of Andhra Pradesh in India, and Li Tie, director general of the China Urbanization Development Center of China’s central planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission.

“One of the differences this year,” Guarraia said, “is the high level of Chinese participation. They are running out of water. They are planting more row crops for animal feed and to boost their protein consumption. They are both a buyer and a supplier around the world.”

When asked why the forum doesn’t address sustainable agriculture and the high financial and environmental cost of raising grain to feed animals for human consumption, Guarraia said many people in developing countries want what people have always wanted: to switch their diets from vegetables and grains to animal-based protein as their incomes rise, as they are in rapidly developing countries.

These are men and women who have spent much of their lives trying to make sense out of food shortages, the challenge of feeding 10 billion people in 50 years, global climate change, rising incomes in countries like China, India and Brazil and much more.

Thinking Globally

The sixth “congress” of the forum in St. Louis will bring together invited strategic thinkers, government players in agricultural policy from the developing world, representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), agribusiness leaders -- and almost no local ag experts, despite being held in the corn- and soybean-growing heartland of the United States.

They will chew over where global agriculture is headed. One who will lead a panel on climate change is Carole Brookins, a former senior U.S. official with the World Bank.

Among the issues Brookins may raise are whether humans can grow nutrients in test tubes to feed animals for human consumption and how we are managing harmful emissions. “How do we know we are managing carbon correctly?” she asked. “How can we manage methane? How can we manage water?”

The congress, to be held at the Ballpark Hilton Hotel through Wednesday, will be akin to the World Economic Forum (https://www.weforum.org/en/index.htm) held each year in Davos, Switzerland. That’s where presidents and prime ministers, finance ministers, academics and business and NGO leaders spin their theories and forecasts of the global economic climate – and received wide press coverage.

The keynote speech on Wednesday will be by Paul Collier, professor of economics at Oxford University and author of “The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done about It.”

If the past is any guide, media coverage is likely to be limited to local print and broadcast. That doesn’t bother the small staff that organized this session of the World Agricultural Forum.

The forum got its start a decade ago under the auspices of the St. Louis Regional Chamber & Growth Association (RCGA) as a way to put St. Louis on the map as a go-to city for long-term thinking in global agriculture.

A former Monsanto and American Soybean Association official, Guarraia added that the forum has wanted to establish its reputation globally so St. Louis will have that reputation when it comes to long-term, in-depth discussions about the complex, daunting issues of world agriculture.

A WAF-sponsored meeting was held in March in Phuket, Thailand, and another will be held in Rio de Janerio, Brazil, in Nov. 3-4. Plans are in the works for regional conferences in India and Africa next year.

“People call it the St. Louis meeting now,” he said. “People want to come here. The ability to sell this is not a problem any more.”

Repps Hudson is a freelance writer. 

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