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Q&A: Howard G. Buffett, ag advocate

CHERYL TEVIS 10/22/2013 @ 9:11am Cheryl has been an editor at Successful Farming since 1979.

Howard G. Buffett found his way into farming through an unlikely route. As a 5-year-old boy, he loved playing in the dirt, and he planted his first stand of corn in his backyard in Omaha, Nebraska.

Farming wasn’t the natural trajectory for the oldest son of billionaire Warren Buffett. Today, the 58-year-old Buffett works 1,500 acres of corn, soybeans, and wheat in Illinois, and he oversees research farms in the U.S. and Africa.

In 1999, he launched the Howard G. Buffett Foundation to improve global living standards and to relieve hunger. He applies no-till and other conservation farming practices, and he uses his bully pulpit to urge U.S. farmers to achieve the dual goals of productivity and sustainability.

Successful Farming magazine recently had the opportunity to ask Buffett to expand upon these topics. Here’s what he had to say.

SF: What can be done to reverse the growing trend of U.S. food insecurity?

HB: The biggest challenge to food security in the U.S. is one of access, even more so than affordability. We need to make an effort to address what many people refer to as food deserts in America and make sure that SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] benefits are more flexible and can be used in venues such as local farmers markets.

SF: You’re a big fan of ag technology. Why?

HB: Technology has provided and will provide more efficient production processes, and it can reduce farming’s footprint if properly applied.

SF: What can be done to reduce food waste in the U.S. and to help food-insecure Americans?

HB: I believe food waste and food insecurity are basically unrelated issues. The biggest single thing we can do to reduce food waste is to reduce portion size – everything has been supersized. Helping food-insecure Americans requires increasing the efficiency and broadening the reach of access.

It is true there is also some opportunity to redistribute food that is about to expire and would otherwise be wasted. This requires a very timely distribution so that food remains safe.

The long-term solution to food insecurity is something that our foundation cannot really affect. It is creating more and better economic opportunities for food-insecure Americans.

SF: You’ve spoken about the culture based on yield. Do you see a tipping point when U.S. water and soil resources will become a greater priority?

HB: Yes, because we won’t have a choice. It isn’t that I don’t believe yield is important – it is. It’s just a mistake to focus on only one element of production, because obtaining higher yields and conserving resources are not mutually exclusive.

This is another reason why technology is important. It can play a major role in combining the goals of increasing yields, reducing water consumption, and preserving our soil.

I have more confidence we will continue to develop technology that improves production and less confidence in our ability to change people’s mind-sets around conservation.

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