No, that wasn’t a typo!
Don’t agree? Perhaps you will after reading this old Byzantine saying:
“He who has bread has many troubles. He who lacks it has only one.”
This came from one of Saturday morning’s speakers at the American Philosophical Society meeting, addressing the subject of food. He and the other speakers emphasized that perhaps a billion people fall into this category of having only one problem.
That’s a billion too many.
Then there are the billion or so of us who fall in the category of overeating, and suffering from all the side effects of this…obesity, heart disease, diabetes…a rather extensive list, and one most of us know only too well. Add to that an additional group who are deficient certain critical vitamins and minerals from their diet…maybe another billion.
A sizeable fraction of today’s population of seven billion. And we expect an additional two billion mouths to feed in another forty years. Where will this food come from?
Well, according to Solomon Katz, director of the Krogman Center for Childhood Growth and Development at the University of Pennsylvania, one third of the food we currently produce is wasted. In the developing countries, most of this waste occurs at the production side. It gets lost on the field, in the harvest, and the beginning of the distribution. In our developed world, most of that waste occurs at the consumption end. [Do those oversize restaurant portions come to mind?]. Hoping to recover all of that waste might be too optimistic, but perhaps we could feed an additional billion through that approach alone. Then there’s a return to grains, beans, etc., versus meat, for our basic diet. Why would that make a difference? In this country, for example, 70% of all the grain grown is fed to livestock; and it takes perhaps ten pounds of grain for every pound of meat we gain in return.
Katz emphasized (we all knew this, didn’t we?) that to feed the world in future years no single approach will suffice. We’ll all be pitching in, in myriad ways. And any synthesis will take more than science and technology. New policies will be required. And in their turn, they’ll require new politics – and, for that matter, fresh attention to ethics and values.
Other speakers during the morning highlighted other issues, topics, and facts. A(n) (almost random) sampling:
The link between water and food. Say it takes a pound of grain to sustain you each day. You also need three gallons of water to meet your physiological requirements. But you need 100 gallons of water to grow that pound of grain. World water use will increase 30% by 2030; double by 2050.
The link between food and biofuels. The grain needed to produce one tankful of biofuel for your car would feed a person for a year.
Food and gender. In poorer countries, in rural areas, 80-90% of food is grown by women. Women own only 2% of the land.
Price and price volatility. These days, it’s not just the price of food that’s a problem for the poor. It’s the volatility of that price. The world’s poorest may be spending 70% of their annual income on food. When that figure starts gyrating wildly, in part because the price of food is now linked to the price of energy, the impact is devastating.
The need for improved rural infrastructure. A key component to waste and low productivity in developing countries? Inadequate infrastructure. That includes hard technologies like roads to get product to market, storage capacity, and the like. It covers agricultural technology – seeds, pesticides, herbicides, etc. It also includes information technology – data on supply and demand locally and internationally. Price data. Financial infrastructure, creating standardized contracts that allow a buyer in London to trust deal on offer for cassava in Malawi.
The importance of reducing dependence on natural subsidies. A big challenge to sustainability of world agriculture? Treatment of water, soil, air, and more as free goods. The result is a decline in fossil water resources, loss of arable land, deforestation, reduction in biodiversity, and environmental degradation. One questioner asked the speaker…if we assign a price to these “free” goods, doesn’t that burden fall most on the poor? The speaker acknowledged this, but pointed out that over the longer term, the poor would benefit, and that over the shorter term the poor could receive subsidies and incentives for desired behavior (there’s the policy piece again, rearing its ugly head), provided the wealthier countries of the world made the resources for those subsidies available (there’s the ethical/values bit).
Genetically modified foods. 40% of today’s food is genetically modified. The speaker on this subject, a Brit, took the opportunity for a (striking) side comment. He noted the European opposition to GM foods and state this represented a “huge success” for European NGO’s, adding that in this arena “they demonstrated the power of emotion over fact in policymaking.”
Other technologies. Include pest management, reduced chemical and energy use, agro-ecology, water conservation, no-till practices, precision agriculture where appropriate, conservation of genetic diversity, more attention to so-called “orphan crops…”
Climate change? Looks to be almost a wash globally, but winners will be mostly within the developed world; the negative impacts seem poised to fall on those most vulnerable.
The last speaker of the session, focusing on climate justice and food security, was Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland (1990-1997) and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002). She concluded by calling for the 17th Conference of the Parties about to get underway in Durban, South Africa, to focus on three objectives: a legally-binding agreement on greenhouse gases, the sustainability of the global food system, and the gender dimensions of these issues.
Whew! Head-spinning. The speakers were impassioned, and their talks bursting with content. As you can see, they exceeded my baud rate and my buffer capacity. Maybe you’d like to hear from the speakers themselves, without my filter. You can, on video, only not just yet, at the following American Philosophical Society link. Keep checking in; they should be posted soon.
Food? An important topic for seven billion people, every day…and salient for Americans as we enter Thanksgiving week.
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