By McCartney Martin, Nebraska News Service

Unfounded public fears about food people eat pose a major challenge for agriculture, a former Tyson Foods Inc. chief executive officer said Tuesday at the University of Nebraska.

Donnie Smith, Tyson Foods CEO from 2009-16 spoke at a Heuermann Lecture hosted by UNL. His presentation was titled “Global Food Security, The War of the Word.”

Smith is currently a consultant to Tyson.

He said that consumers’ lack of trust in industry practice is causing unnecessary harm to the food industry.

“People are fearful of food today and the way it’s being produced,” Smith said. “We have a huge challenge in front of us.”

Smith said the use of genetically modified organisms has been a controversial issue in past years. Opponents claim ingesting foods that contain GMOs can create health risks, as well as harm the environment.

GMOs are crafted through a laboratory process in which a plant, animal or other microorganism’s genetic makeup is altered. GMOs have been shown to improve the nutritional quality of food, as well as increase the efficiency in production and environmental sustainability.

GMOs also give foods a longer shelf life, which creates less waste. Smith said roughly 25-30 percent of the world’s food is wasted each year.

Smith attributed the “hysteria” surrounding GMOs to fictitious information and claims that spread rapidly on social media platforms, as well as documentaries like “Food, Inc.”

“There’s no credible research that proves there’s been a single problem caused by GMOs in the past 20 years,” he said. “But today, you see non-GMO labels sweeping across grocery stores.”

Smith said the only way to combat this problem is for the agriculture industry to speak up for itself and its practices.

“We need to take back the story and win this argument,” he said. “If people believe these claims, it’s going to be extremely damaging.”

Smith said that the next generation of farmers and agriculture professionals need to be ready to not only defend their craft, but also come up with solutions on how to feed the world’s population in years to come.

Smith said when he began his career with Tyson Foods in 1980, the world produced 2.1 trillion metric tons of food. By the end of 2017, the world produced about 4.5 trillion metric tons.

While Smith saw food production double in his professional lifetime, there are still at least 800 million “food insecure” people around the world, he said. He is worried about the increasing demand in the next 35 years.

“We have to become more efficient in the next 35 years in order to feed the world’s population,” he said. “We have to learn to communicate what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”