How on Earth Can we Feed Nine Billion? Live Online Chat hosted by Farming First Panelists

The Guardian Sustainable Business hosted a live online discussion this week on how to feed the world’s expanding population, called “Feeding the World: How on Earth Can We Feed 9 Billion People?”

The world’s resources are under more strain than ever before as global demand for water, energy and food increases. It is now crucial that the world adapts to create a more sustainable and secure food system whist using fewer resources.

A number of Farming First spokespeople were on the panel, including Robynne Anderson, the UN representative for the World Farmers Organisation, Santiago del Solar, an agronomist and farmer from the north west of Buenos Aires Province, and Dawn Rittenhouse, director of sustainability at the DuPont Company.

The issues around the global food crisis that were up for discussion were varied, and included food waste, choice editing (where retailers remove products that are harmful to the environment from their shelves), rising obesity and population rates, food production, diminishing resources, and climate change.

With the above challenges in mind, the panel discussion today aimed to focus specifically on:

  1. Changing consumer behaviour: looking at how to shift attitudes so that food is valued and not wasted
  2. Business response: the role of companies in aiding this change in behaviour and what it can do to help create a sustainable food system
  3. Innovative and efficient farming techniques

As the live discussion got under way, panel members were asked the question “why aren’t we feeding the world?”

Louise: Louise Fresco is a professor at the University of Amsterdam, specialising in international development, agriculture and food, replied:

 “Well, we are feeding the world in some sense. In quantitative terms we produce more calories already than are strictly needed for today’s 7 billion. Hunger is not a matter of production but of purchasing power. The areas of chronic hunger are those of failing states (North Korea, Horn of Africa, Great Lakes), or areas of massive natural disaster (Myanmar) or of persistent inequality (rural India)….”

The chat then moved on to discuss the benefits of local food purchasing. In response to a question about the effectiveness of the ‘locavore’ movement (where one eats exclusively local food), Dawn Rittenhouse replied:

“Our belief is that to accomplish food security, many food systems are going to be needed and we won’t be able to rely on any one approach. Locavore is one component and when local food is available then it makes a lot of sense to eat local, but trying to grow everything everywhere isn’t the right approach to accomplishing food security.”

Robynne Anderson added:

“Attachment to food is always an emotive question, and it is also health related with the need for diets that are diverse and healthy. Local food definitely has a role in production and can make the most of seasonal goodness. It is also key to maximize the impact of natural climate and geography. For instance, the efficiency of production of New Zealand lamb, for instance, is well researched and takes advantage of the available rainfall, food and water, that then allows it to be exported around the world.”

On the topic of scaling-up sustainable solutions for agriculture in an effort to create smarter systems to help address the multifaceted challenges of the food crisis, Robynne comments:

“There are very different audiences which may need to be reached. Scaling-up in a farmer context is often best done through farmer organisations and extension services. …Also key are community demonstration sites and risk insurance. Scaling up at a consumer level often requires retailer support or very different communications projects.”

When asked what the panellists would suggest be done to get the best and brightest talent running the farm businesses of the future, Dawn commented:

 “Engagement of youth is so important – this came out a lot in Rio+20 as people were talking about sustainable intensification. We need to provide the tools and the training and the ultimate markets so youth see farming as a viable career option.”

On consumer behaviour and food purchasing, Jan Kees Vis, global director sustainable sourcing development at Unilever in The Netherlands said:

“What Unilever finds in market research is that consumers are interested in topics like sustainability, but their purchasing decisions are not driven by it. Which means that we can and should make it part of our marketing (more for some brands than for others), but it will (most likely) not become a Unique Selling Point for any brand.” 

Finally, participants challenged panellists for some ‘out of box’ ideas to solve the food crisis, apart from technology and ‘consume less’. First, Dawn suggested:

Technology is important- I think that out of the box examples will be how technology can be used to sustainably increase yields and reduce waste. Just the ability to be able to get your product to market and be paid for it can be facilitated by use of technologies like mobile phones, mobile payments, etc.”

Richard Perkins, senior commodities adviser at WWF, added:

“There was a great out of the box solution provided in the comments on the original article. Educate women and girls. This is the best and most humane way to bring down the population side driver. We are getting on top of the global population problem and more control for women over their own fertility will help more, but tackling this head-on in male-dominated societies may not be the best way forward.”

Robynne Anderson continued on the theme of education for women and added:

“… Richard’s point regarding integrating women farmers in Africa into the solutions, it couldn’t be more important and thanks for raising it. World Farmers Organisation has many members who are female farmers in Africa. In working with them, I have been struck by the extent to which the solutions start on their small farms. Really it means breaking the poverty cycle. They need access to productive resources like the ability to own land; better knowledge sharing; and inputs such as tools and seeds to grow a crop….”

In the closing ten minutes of the discussion, panel members were invited to share a short comment on what they consider to be the most urgent steps for the next ten years.

Santiago del Solar contributed his first-hand experience as a farmer:

As far as I can see, agriculture is getting better, if we measure the impact of pesticide uses 20 years ago vs. the ones that we use today, or the soil erosion I saw when I was a kid, just to mention few examples. Of course we can do things better, but we are trying and learning. New tools like no till or biotech are helping a lot.”

In closing, Robynne Anderson outlined her five most urgent priorities:

  1. “address access to productive resources for women farmers
  2.  encourage young people into farming and improve intergenerational transfer
  3.  tackle post harvest losses and food waste
  4.  recognize and support a diversity of farming systems
  5.  increase the power of farmers in the food chain”

Finally, Dawn Rittenhouse closed with:

“Thanks for the opportunity to participate in this discussion…it has been great to read all the thoughts from the wide ranging conversation.
Food security is one of the most important issues that we need to tackle as a society and it will require that we find solutions for all the challenges along the value chain- from enhancing output from farms, educating youth so they want to choose farming as a career to reducing waste and improving the nutritional value of food. We look forward to being part of the solution.”

To view the full discussion click here.

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