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Developing an Ecological Conscience
What will the future of agriculture look like?
Fred Kirschenmann’s keynote address to the 27th Annual Camden Conference showed why this North Dakota farmer and Iowa State professor is considered one of the leading thinkers on food issues in America today. Kirschenmann offered opinions, presented challenges and issued warnings about why and how agriculture needs to adapt to become truly sustainable and capable of feeding an exploding world population.
Kirschenmann began by debunking the idea that focusing on food production alone will be the answer to feeding the predicted nine billion people on earth by 2050. He called that idea simplistic and one that ignores addressing the need for “Solving for Pattern,” explaining that huge problems are always part of a variety of issues, and that the whole pattern they create must be recognized and confronted if there is going to be a real and lasting solution.
“Hunger is not a problem primarily of producing enough food. We’re currently procuring enough food to feed ten billion people and yet we have a billion who are going hungry,” he said. “Hunger is a problem of poverty and inequality. It doesn’t make any difference how much corn and soy beans we produce in Iowa if people in Tanzania can’t afford to buy it.”
As an example, Kirschenmann cited a study that found that only a minuscule percentage of corn shipped down the Mississippi River reached the countries in need of it the most. For the places in the world with the least food, more than foreign aid is essential.
For people to be able to feed themselves they need to be empowered to achieve that goal, he said. Access to land, to capital, and to information are necessary to farm successfully and must be part of the approach to eradicating world hunger. Kirschenmann added that since 70 percent of the world’s farmers are women, insuring their equality and education are particularly vital.
Kirschenmann turned next to the rapidly diminishing amount of fresh water available for agriculture. He cited as evidence America’s Ogallala Aquifer, which exists under eight Midwestern states and is one of the world’s largest. It has been depleted by half since 1960, and it is predicted that in 20 years there will be no more water left to even irrigate the American heartland, making one of our key water sources for growing crops no longer available. Couple this with the increasing global impacts of climate change and extreme weather events, and the future of the world’s food supply, as well as our own, certainly appears to be endangered.
“And those who think that we can always come up with a new technology to replace some gift of nature that we’ve lost, that we no longer have, are not paying attention,” he said.
Fred Kirschenmann believes we have been living with paradox. On the one hand, our present day methods of agriculture have achieved bounteous yields, but on the other he considers this a “blip in human history” and the “least efficient food system ever known to man.”
This “Neo-Caloric” era of food production has been all about the use of stored energy, primarily from fossil fuels, that has allowed humans to consume more calories (a calorie being a unit of energy that produces heat) than we produce. Now that man is running out of cheap and abundant sources of energy, Kirschenmann believes a number of crucial changes to the way we grow food and the way we eat are already taking place.
As energy and food production become more expensive we will move to a more ecologically sustainable model with more reliance on regional and local food sources. That will also mean we will be forced to change our diets. But in the perceived battle between industrial or organic farming as the preferred way to move forward, Kirschenmann sees neither as the path to the future.
Instead, he sees both as part of the same paradigm. Both aspire to “maximum efficient production for short term economic profit.” And what has made that system work so far has been the supply of affordable energy and inputs (feed, seed, fertilizer) and the earth’s stable climate, all of which will no longer be a given.
“If we think we can intensify everything that we have been doing in the past in order to produce more food for the future,” he said, “those natural resources that we have depended on are not going to be there for us.” Both farmers using synthetic inputs and those who employ only natural methods to grow food depend upon these increasingly scarce resources. The new path that he says must be taken will be different.
“What would that kind of agriculture look like?” he said. “If we really want to have a sustainable agriculture we have to do it the way nature does it, because nature has been around a long time.”
Planting “cover crops” that you can grow in the same ground at the same time with “monoculture” crops like corn and soybeans is one of the practices that needs to gain traction, according to Kirschenmann. The benefit of this is that it keeps fields green longer, which creates the microbes that naturally inhabit healthy soil. Over time, better soil would mean that fertilizer and pesticide use could be cut dramatically while still maintaining the same yields created when using them.
A second change that Kirschenmann sees as necessary to creating a more sustainable agriculture is transitioning from annual agricultural systems to ones that are more perennial based. Perennial crops, which are planted once and live for several years, also nourish the soil and allow for more efficient use of water applied to them. This is a biology that he calls more “self-regulating and self-renewing.”
Kirschenmann sees the future of food and the future of man as inseparably intertwined. The challenges we face, he believes, will require nothing short of a new culture for both how and what food is grown and eaten. In addition, he says the current way in which food is traded and sold will have to be reconsidered.
Just as farmers and consumers will have to adapt, Kirschenmann believes that new and different economic models will need to be part of the transformation, too. Food may have to be thought of as more than a commodity that is basically valued financially and produced for the highest profit.
“As humans we see ourselves somehow separate,” he said. “We feel we are the conquerors and force the rest of nature to do whatever we want it to do.”
Kirschenmann’s final appeal was for us to develop what he calls an “ecological conscience,” a caring attitude toward everything that shares existence with us from the microbes in the ground and the plants that grow in it, to all the other forms of life that inhabit the world with us. In order for this to occur, he realizes a social evolution will have to happen, which will instill in each of us a belief in the earth’s sacredness and our responsibility to protect it.
In closing, he talked about how the arts can play an important role in steering us into the future. He read a friend’s fictitious letter written by a descendant a hundred years in the future, excoriating the price of our failure to have changed our ways: “And if you knew and if you cared, how could you not act? What excuses did you make? And now what would you have us do?”
If we don’t act, it won’t be because we haven’t been warned by the likes of Fred Kirschenmann.
Fred Kirschenmann has been involved in sustainable agriculture and food issues most of his life. He currently serves as a Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and as President of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York. He also manages his family’s 1800-acre certified organic farm in North Dakota. In 2010, the University Press of Kentucky published his book, Cultivating an Ecological Conscience: Essays from a Farmer Philosopher, which traces the evolution of Kirschenmann’s ecological and farming philosophy.
Adapting to Climate Change
“The challenge before us today is to increase global food supplies by 60 percent to feed 9 billion people in 2050,” Ann Tutwiler told the audience. “This is as great a challenge as faced us in the early 1960s, at the beginning of what we call the Green Revolution.”
The Green Revolution initially focused on Asia, particularly in India and China, countries which suffered severe famines, she said. Agricultural researchers developed new varieties of high yield rice, wheat, and corn through improved plant breeding, irrigation, and fertilizer, and the gains achieved in these countries were tremendous. In a 40-year time span, yields and food production were more than doubled.
The Green Revolution jumped-started economic development in India and China and reduced their global proportion of hungry people by 10 percent, Tutwiler further stated. But these gains came at a price. The overuse of agricultural chemicals polluted ground water, thirsty crops depleted aquifers, and heavy machinery compacted and degraded soils.
The agriculture model that was espoused during the Green Revolution promoted vastly simplified diets. It focused on three of the 7,000 plants in the world, the rationale being these were staple crops that formed the basis of most people’s diets.
“They supplied the most calories, and at that point in time we thought calories were all that we needed to ensure we didn’t have starvation,” Tutwiler said.
Due to public and private investment, Tutwiler said we now get over 50 percent of our calories from three crops: rice, wheat, and corn. These staple crops replaced traditional foods that were often high in nutrients and resilient to climate shocks and variable weather patterns.
Now we find ourselves in 2014, facing a new set of challenges. We still have 150,000 million who are hungry, 1 billion people facing obesity and hundreds of millions of people facing micro-nutrient deficiencies, Tutwiler said.
We still need to increase productivity to feed the anticipated 9 billion people, but we need to do so in the face of climate change. Tutwiler said the world is losing 40 million tons of grain production a year due to climate change. By 2050, according to researchers, yields are projected to decrease by 15 percent in Africa and by 18 percent in Asia.
In response to this, Tutwiler suggests the agriculture sector needs to minimize risk through biodiversity. Just what is agricultural biodiversity? Thousands of varieties of quinoa, bananas, and millet represent just a few examples of the vast genetic assets we can deploy to help cope with the risks from climate change, according to Tutwiler.
In closing, she outlined some necessary steps to prepare for future climate change. Tutwiler said it is essential to maintain genetic diversity on farms so that researchers will have the genetic material to draw on. More research needs to be conducted into crops that are more drought and flood tolerant and are more resilient to climate change. Researchers need to learn how best to manage these plants, she said, and to build a strong evidence base so farmers will adopt them.
The private sector, which outspends public sector organizations in agricultural development research 11 to one, needs to invest more. She said, “We need to work with the private sector to try to bring some of the knowledge back into the forgotten crops.”
Better public policy and government support is also needed with regard to the biodiversity of seeds, crops, fertilizer and to feeding the hungry.
“One of the most important things we need to do is to change our way of thinking,” Tutwiler said. “We need to begin to think that this is not an ‘either/or’ strategy. We need to change our thinking, change our paradigm so that we are learning how to incorporate the benefits of agricultural biodiversity and the benefits of some of these production practices into modern agriculture so that we can get the kind of yield growth and productivity growth that we know we need to feed 9.5 billion people.”
Q: Can you address patenting seeds and problems around that? Nutrient value of grains is going down with the high CO2 content, is that something we are still concerned about?
Tutwiler: The question of patents is a difficult one because I think we all know that in order for companies to invest in new technologies they need to have incentives in order to do so. We need to find ways of getting the seeds to the farmers. We are working with farmers in informal seed systems, seeds that they are trading among themselves. There is no quality control on these seeds, which can be a problem. Some farmers are using seeds [with] 200 or 300 year old technology and we’re never going to get the yields increased in those countries unless we can bring in modern and improved varieties. We need to bring in varieties that will help produce better yields.
Regarding nutrient deficiencies: As we have been breeding more for shelf life and appearances of our fruit and vegetable crops, we start losing nutrients. I think we need to begin to think how we can reintroduce better nutrition into some of the crops we’re eating.
Q: Would you comment a little bit on the farm bill recently passed and impacts on the things you would like to see happen in the world?
Tutwiler: One of the reasons I moved to Rome is because I didn’t want to work on another U.S. farm bill. One of the rationales behind the 1996 farm bill that I worked on put in place direct payments. It gave direct payments to farmers, but asked nothing in return. In Europe they have payments, but in return farmers have to meet standards of environmental compliance and biodiversity. I worry a lot about the crop insurance policies. Farmers could begin to plant crops in an environment for which they are not well suited, but the farmers know that they will get a crop insurance payout if the crop fails.
Q: You focus on the supply side, but what about the demand side, cookbooks and recipes?
Tutwiler: On the demand side, malnutrition and obesity is a growing problem in our world, and not just in our country, but also in the developing world. This is not just a rich country phenomenon. Many of the crops I was talking about are more nutritious. They are often seen as poor peoples’ crops and are difficult to process. We have done some interesting work in Kenya with women’s cooperatives on reintroducing African leafy green vegetables that grow well in the area. One of the three pillars of our organization is working on nutrition.
Q: What are some of the global macro political factors that are relevant to your success? For example, which countries have been supportive and which haven’t and why?
Tutwiler: The biggest challenge is the continued prevalence of the mathematical calculation that higher productivity equals higher calories equals less hunger, and therefore we need to be investing our resources into these few staple crops. We can’t just talk about yield in individual crops in one year or the next year. We need to talk about the yield and the productivity of the whole farming system over a period of decades and we need to also be thinking about, “what is the environmental and nutritional impact of the crop?”
Q: Could you speak to how women’s nutrition and health is a part of this whole challenge?
Tutwiler: Most of the crops that we work with are crops traditionally grown by women. So, it is important for my organization to work with women producing and improving productivity of these crops. The income comes to these women who then spend the money on the healthcare and education of their families.
Q: How is wildlife diversity accommodated in our focus on feeding humans?
Tutwiler: This is another area where there are a lot of changes that are needed in our way of thinking. One strand of thinking states that we should increase food production on as few acres as we can and leave the rest for wild protected areas. The conservation community is beginning to realize that simply having protected lands that are left “pristine” and leaving agriculture aside is not a long-term solution to a more sustainable world. We need to have a more integrated approach as we think about how to protect our wildlife diversity and so-called managed diversity.
Q: What, in your opinion, would be the resulting matrix if we stepped away from subsidized agriculture in the U.S. entirely?
Tutwiler: It’s hard to identify a single country in the world that doesn’t provide some degree of support to its farmers, so I think it’s not a matter of whether or not to support; it’s a matter of how and what. Look at the food pyramid and what we should eat and look at where the money is going and it is a complete inverted pyramid. We are not supporting research in fruits and vegetables, for example, or improved food safety in those areas. It is not a question of “how much,” but “the what and the how,” and the impact on consumers. We need to think about starting to produce nutritious calories.
Ann Tutwiler is the Director General of Bioversity International, an international research for development organization that is a member of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) Consortium. As the Director General, Tutwiler is responsible for leading Bioversity International, forging effective research partnerships and overseeing the organization’s strategic priorities and research agenda.
Africa’s Next Harvest:
Technological Leapfrogging and Sustainable Agriculture
“What will it take for African countries to really effectively address their agricultural challenges?” Calestous Juma’s response to this question he posed at the start of his talk asserts that in order for food to grow, the economies of Africa must grow, and it is the responsibility of African leadership to attend to this growth.
As the title of his talk suggests, Africa must take advantage of technological advances by “leapfrogging” the stages required of the developed world up to now and to simply “plug in” to current and future advances in agriculture, technology, and infrastructure.
Africa is poised on the edge of a “new harvest” which, if technologies are implemented efficiently and purposefully, could catapult the continent into position as a leader of sustainable agricultural practices.
With this in mind, Juma suggested ways to grow African economies; principally, that it is imperative to move away from the notion that food security is the only issue. He said, “There needs to be a leap in the way we think about agriculture and food production.”
Using statistics to qualify his perspective, Juma showed that the bulk of the population of Africa is rural. Roughly 70 percent of its working population is entrenched in agricultural production, and in most countries in Africa, upwards of 30 percent of the GDP is a result of agricultural production.
Food production in Africa is already central to its economic development; production is not the issue. Rather, it is the perception of agriculture and its role in the economy that must be re-examined.
“It’s not called agriculture for nothing,” he said. “It’s called agriculture, because it is a culture, it is a way of life.” The development of agriculture on the African continent is central to the growth of the economy, and African leaders must embrace this notion, he said. The development of infrastructure may be central to this process.
According to Juma, the development of infrastructure in Africa is mired in the bureaucracy created by its ministries. This often makes it impossible to determine which ministry should shoulder the responsibility of design and implementation.
Juma suggested that it has become necessary to circumvent this system, and, in speaking about his book, The New Harvest, he said, “to advance or modernize agriculture takes more than just the functions of the ministry of agriculture.” He lays the responsibility in the hands of the presidents. He contends that it is the presidents who are central to the growth of Africa’s economy.
Juma cited a number of meetings of the African leadership, most notably the World Economic Forum (WEF) in December 2012 and the African Union (AU) Summit of 2014, which shifted the focus of African agricultural sustainability from an issue of food security to one of economic development. The WEF resulted in the commitment of $3.5 billion to African agriculture. The AU declared 2014 “the year of agriculture and food security” with the theme of its January 2014 conference titled, “Transforming Africa’s Agriculture: Harnessing Opportunities for Inclusive Growth and Sustainable Development.”
Juma said there could be a concurrent shift from traditional agricultural practices to the use of cutting edge technologies, even as this change in paradigm continues and becomes more firmly rooted.
“Where are the sources of possibilities for technological leapfrogging going to come from?” he asked, and then proceeded to answer his own question: “One obvious area is this notion of exponential technological growth, …where present generations are inheriting much larger quantities of scientific and technological knowledge compared to their predecessors.”
Juma then whisked the audience through a brief and entertaining history of the cell phone. Once cumbersome and rare, cell phones, and more recently smartphones, have become so ubiquitous that many people in Africa were able to leapfrog this technological process and gain access to the same technology that many developed parts of the world had to gain through an evolutionary process.
Juma’s use of maps detailing the prevalence of fiber optic cables provided a clear visual that demonstrated how African leaders can quickly and purposefully impact the connectivity of an entire continent. In 2009, one fiber optic cable provided telecommunications to Africa’s population. By 2014, $4 billion were invested in undersea cables. The governments of many of Africa’s nations were beginning to recognize the value of connectivity. Furthermore, the value of smartphone technology to farmers is immeasurable, giving them instant access to weather and crop conditions, educational resources and communication for distribution and marketing.
Juma also addressed the evolution of genomics. In its infancy, the Genome Project committed $100 million and 13 years to mapping the human genome. A genome can now be mapped in two hours for about $1,000. With this relatively inexpensive and available technology, small-scale farmers, with the support of the leadership within several African countries, could apply this technology to crops and gain information about how those crops can be modified and adapted to changing soil and weather conditions. The use of genetic modifications and crop diversification, Juma said, could give both small-scale farmers and the larger economy the ability to transform agriculture from a subsistence based model into the source of economic growth for entire villages, regions and nations.
Juma clearly believes that Africa’s use of technology, including nanotechnology, the use of drones, the development of polymers to create waterproof roads and absorbent crops, as well as the use of sustainable and renewable energy resources and aquaculture, could catapult the continent into a position of economic viability and sustainability. The most important step in making this objective a reality is to secure public policy that supports it.
In conclusion, Juma said infrastructure, specifically roads and electricity, must be prioritized. There are a number of nations which have allocated resources to these ends, and he said the military, already stocked with the equipment, manpower, and some of the best engineers in Africa, could build road networks quickly and efficiently.
Education systems must also be attended to, he said. Improvements in education will not only train scientists and engineers, but could also be utilized to create an educated agricultural community with knowledge in crop management, diversification, waste management, and conservation.
Finally, he said, regional integration is critical, as knowledge and information is viewed as a shared commodity.
In short, Juma asserts that the transformation in Africa’s agricultural, and thus economic systems, must be knowledge intensive. Central to this strategy is building a leadership with backgrounds in science and engineering. Agricultural diplomacy will become a central tool of African governments. As agricultural development becomes a central theme and the economy responds, many of the struggles that African nations have faced as a result of economic isolation may be alleviated and Africa’s next harvest will bring economic prosperity to all corners of the continent.
Calestous Juma is Professor of the Practice of International Development and Director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He holds a doctorate in science and technology policy studies and has written widely on science, technology, and environment. Juma serves on the boards of several international bodies and is editor of the International Journal of Technology and Globalisation and the International Journal of Biotechnology. His latest book, The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa, was published by Oxford University Press in 2011.
The Human Cost of Climate Change
“Two degrees Celsius is a big deal,” said Andrew Guzman, Professor of Law at the University of California’s Berkeley Law School and author of Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change. Two degrees Celsius. By the end of the 21st Century, life-altering changes will be effected by that conservative estimate of the increase in global temperature, unless the international community can conceive and implement solutions to planetary warming.
Professor Guzman opened his Saturday morning remarks by asserting that food and water are intimately intertwined with law and climate change, and that water will be disproportionately affected. If you want to change the views of policy makers, he said, “it is essential to talk about people: not polar bears, not polar ice caps—people. I am here to persuade you today that climate change is a big deal. It will exact from us staggering human costs on a scale never confronted in history.”
Based on conservative estimates, Guzman asserted, a two-degree increase in global temperatures will cause hundreds of millions of people to die and will cause harm to billions. He then proceeded to analyze the basis for the scientific community’s estimate of lives lost and their measures of human harm.
Let’s start with the melting of mountain glaciers, also known as snow packs, said Guzman, and examine the human response to these glaciers melting. Human communities need water, not just over the course of a year, but every day. People historically have settled near rivers, often near rivers that are fed directly by mountain glaciers. That’s no surprise, he said. Mountain glaciers function as water storage devices. Failure of those natural water storage devices causes problems. Make no mistake about it, Guzman said, these devices are failing, and that failure constitutes the single greatest threat to the worldʼs water supply.
Take Bolivia as an example. In Bolivia, for 4,000 years, an indigenous people called the Uru Chipaya have made their homes next to, and relied on, the same source of water: the Lauca River. But the present generation of Uru Chipaya appear to be the last generation who will be able to live on the Lauca, because the volume and flow of the river are not enough to sustain them.
Thus, Guzman said, the Uru Chipaya will have to move—and they will not move the way people changing jobs move. They will have to leave their ancestral homes, and almost inevitably, they will move to Bolivian cities, where they will try to eke out a living in an environment totally alien to them. Many, if not most, of the Uru Chipaya will not survive this change. The Uru Chipaya constitute 2,000 of the 300 million who will die from the inadequacy of water supplies resulting from climate change.
Pulling up higher from the Lauca River to the continent of South America makes the scale of the problem clearer, Guzman said. The three largest Bolivian cities depend on Andean glaciers for water As a two-degree temperature increase causes those glaciers to melt, 10 million Bolivians will be affected by the consequent decrease in the amount of water available during South Americaʼs dry season. Peru, Ecuador, and Chile are in precisely the same situational dependency, Guzman told the audience. The people in those four countries who are at risk of death from depleted water supplies number approximately 71 million.
The numbers mounted and moved closer to home. California, Guzman said, gets 35 percent of its water supply from the Sierra snowpack. That snowpack is shrinking—25–40 percent by mid-century, scientists estimate. Rising global temperatures cause the snow pack to melt earlier in the year, bringing more water than needed to California during its wet season and bringing less than needed in its dry season. Southern California depends on the water collected from the Sierras to survive. Without that water supply, the number of lives at risk from inadequate water rises an additional 109 million.
The estimates continued—all conservative because, as Guzman observed, the credibility of climate change scientists cannot survive hyperbole. Populations in Asia (“where the people are,” said Guzman) who depend on glacier-fed rivers like the Indus, the Yangtze, and the Yellow River, number in the hundreds of millions. The death tolls that would result from glacial shrinkage and disappearance match the number of people who currently depend on those rivers for their lives.
Because human beings are bad at processing numbers, said Guzman, it is helpful to think in terms of proportion and percentage. One out of every two people lives where a glacier is the source of the community’s water supply. One out of every two people lives where their water supply is stressed. That means, he said, that agriculture is stressed, affecting human nutrition. Industry and manufacturing are stressed, affecting wealth locally and internationally.
Why does that matter? It matters because eventually, climate change-driven stress on water supplies will cause people’s quality of life to decline sharply. The global wealthy will complain about inconveniences and have to accept a lesser quality of life than that to which they are accustomed. The global middle class will have to make difficult budget choices among health care, shelter, and food. The poor, however, because they have nothing to trade, will starve. Guzman said this shows how water directly affects our international well-being.
It is not a big leap, then, to understand that when seas rise from melting ice packs, millions of people will be displaced in coastal nations like Bangladesh. They will become refugees, but because of the sheer weight of their numbers (estimates suggest that one out of every 33 people on the planet will be displaced), the international community will be unable to absorb them. They will resort to life in refugee camps, but unlike civil wars or natural disasters, climate change is permanent. The people driven into these camps will find themselves doomed to lifetimes of instability, dependency, violence, and squalor.
Suffering will be a function of water-related political tension, Guzman noted, pointing to Pakistani-Indian relations as an example. Eighty percent of the Indus River is glacier- fed, with 30-40 percent of that glacial “storage device” reduced by the end of this century.
The Indus flows through India on its way to Pakistan. India and Pakistan have fought four wars since 1947. Their relationship is, at best, hostile. Guzman asked audience members to imagine a scenario in which a nuclear Pakistan has less water than does India, when a nuclear India controls Pakistanʼs water supply.
Similar potential scenarios exist in a nuclear Israel, and in African nations like Nigeria where existing stress on water and food will be ratcheted up by the damage caused by climate change. In sum, Guzman said, the evidence shows us that climate change is setting the human race on a course that will result in massive suffering, and the risks of that suffering grow exponentially with every degree increase in temperature.
He closed his talk by suggesting we can frame climate change in two ways: as big trouble, or as a challenge that we can meet and then celebrate mastering. The payoff for success, he said, will be huge. Hundreds of millions of lives will be saved with billions of lives improved.
In response to audience questions, Guzman predicted that technology—desalinization technology, for example—must be part of the solution to climate change. He is optimistic that this generation will meet their great challenge as generations in the past have met and overcome theirs.
Andrew Guzman is the author of the widely acclaimed book Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change (Oxford University Press, 2013). He is Professor of Law and Director of the Advanced Law degree programs at the University of California’s Berkeley Law School. He is also a member of the Institute for Transnational Arbitration’s Academic Council and is on the boards of several academic journals. He has been a visiting professor at a number of universities, including Harvard Law School, University of Hamburg and the National Law School in Bangalore, India.
for a Changing Ocean
Andreas Merkl opened his talk with the question, “What does it mean to be an ocean advocate today when we know that the number one and number two threats to the ocean are global warming and overpopulation?”
The big, big word here is “change.” Our ocean is fundamentally changing, he said. We are moving from an environment of risk to one of uncertainty. Risk can be managed: Sometimes we win and sometimes we lose, but we know the odds. With uncertainty comes danger, but also opportunity. He said we are not going to solve the problem by being fisheries managers or oceanographers. We need to bring in a whole new set of expertise. This uncertainty is driven by all kinds of things. First of all, the chemistry is changing. Acidity is increasing, we are overfishing, heat is a factor and “we are pushing serous pollution into the ocean.”
The oyster industry in British Columbia was the first to face an existential threat, and that came from ocean acidification. The oyster fry [larva] were dying. It was due to the rising acidity of seawater. As CO2 increases in the atmosphere the acidity of the ocean increases.
Acidity is strange. There are winners and losers. It favors some species but not others. Pteropods, pea-sized sea snails, commonly known as “sea butterflies,” which live in the water column and use two “wings” to swim are the favorite food of young salmon. They are increasingly threatened by ocean acidification. More carbon dioxide increases the water’s acidity and decreases its pH, making it harder for organisms like pteropods to create healthy calcium carbonate shells.
“At a certain point it all goes south,” Merkl said. We are now at 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Systematic under-saturation of aragonite [a naturally occurring carbonate ocean mineral] occurs at 600–650 parts per million of carbon dioxide, he said, adding, “That is pretty much a straight line of progression from where we are now and will happen unless we do something very significant. Are all the creatures going to die? No. What it does is makes things harder.” Merkl said the carbon dioxide increase puts a “metabolic tax” on animals as they spend all their energy on building shells. The ability to reproduce is therefore diminished. Half of marine life has some sort of a shell and they depend on aragonite for growth.
“We have already seen some real ups and downs, some uncertainty in the water,” Merkl said, referencing a slide showing California salmon. “Ten years ago we had a bumper crop. Then the next year it all disappeared. Salmon populations are fluctuating wildly. Is it because their food has disappeared? Is it because of subtle changes in currents? There is no historical precedent. Are they wiped out? No. Will they come back? Yes, sometimes for a few years, but there is greater uncertainty.”
Merkl then began to discuss haddock in the Gulf of Maine. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists did a stock assessment in 2012 and determined the maximum sustainable yield (how many fish can be taken out of the sea). They told the fisherman they could catch 15 percent of the stock assessment total. In 2013 they instead caught only 4 percent. “What happened? Did they go south? Did they go north? Did the food disappear?” Merkl said. “We have a very good idea that the water is getting warmer. Stocks are shifting. There is an unmistakable trend of most stocks going north.”
Many of the smaller species, like anchovies, are shifting northward. Such forage fish are moving faster than their predator fish. “Is that necessarily bad? We don’t know. The prey will be eaten somewhere else. Fishermen will tell you that when one stock is depleted, another will take its place. The ocean is an incredibly productive machine,” Merkl said.
His talk suggested that climate change is forcing our hand to manage the pyramid of fishery biomass—from “slime to prime”—as a system. He said we can’t go on managing a single species at a time.
“Maybe with a few really well administered metrics we could learn how to manage an ocean system in a much better way than we are currently doing it, while being much simpler at the same time,” he said. “That gives me hope, and we have the technology.”
Merkl then described how economic and ecological interests intersect in the developing world. In the Philippines, some 3,662 trawlers catch half of the three million tons of 40 different species of fish and 465,000 small boats catch the other half. He said the catch per unit of effort for the small boats there has gone down by 92 percent in the last fifteen years. The introduction of the larger trawlers has been catastrophic for the small boats.
It is a classic case of a commodity impacted by overcapacity, like an underperforming coal mine, he said. Efforts by NGOs to fix the problem have not worked. Merkl sees it as a development problem. He proposed that the solution is to get fishing fleets to self-manage, to get the underperformers out of fishing and recover the fish stocks. He said it is one situation where “economic interests and ecological interests are completely aligned. Your most profitable fishery is one that is managed sustainably.”
Merkl next tackled a topic not directly related to food but a definite factor in the food supply, the North Pacific Gyre. “That is where all the trash goes. The gyres are where, to be precise, somewhere around 10 million tons of plastic goes per year,” he said, adding there are five gyres in the ocean that send ocean debris great distances to very remote locations.
He and a team of researchers found that 80 percent of the trash they found on a beach in Alaska came from Asia. Merkl noted the damage to sea life this pollution causes, including the killing of seabirds.
Also, 10 million tons of plastic going into the ocean every year adds up to 300 million tons total and “we can find only less than one percent of it,” he said. “So, where is it? We have a hunch that the rest of it is inside the biota, it’s inside the animals.” It goes into the food chain.
“You can’t design your way out of this. You can’t recycle your way out of this. There’s only way to stop this, which is to stop the leakage,” Merkl said. “This is going to be a big collaborative effort that we’re going to have to get into.
“What we are seeing in the ocean is clear signs of trouble, new levels of uncertainty, but the ocean is also an unbelievably resilient system. We have increasingly the tools to manage such a system in all of its complexity. I think the most fundamental question of it all is: Are our tools of managing uncertainty growing at the same rate as the rate at which we are introducing that uncertainty into the systems?”
Andreas Merkl is the President and CEO of Ocean Conservancy, which educates and empowers citizens to take action on behalf of the ocean. Prior to taking the helm at Ocean Conservancy, Merkl served as principal at California Environmental Associates, a San Francisco-based think tank and consultancy that works on the management of the natural resource commons. Previously, Merkl was a founding member of McKinsey & Company’s Environmental Practice and served as Vice President and co-founder of the CH2M HILL Strategy Group, providing environmental management consulting services worldwide.
Panel on Agricultural Solutions for Global Food Security:
A Multi-Systems Approach
Merrigan, Harkness, Gustafson
Opportunities for Big Climate Solutions from Small-scale Production
Kathleen Merrigan, former Undersecretary of Agriculture, started Saturday’s panel discussion with a solutions approach to climate change. She began by urging the audience to go to the US Department of Agriculture website and look up the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass. Merrigan said it is a great tool to learn about the USDA and private resources to help people in local agricultural communities.
“Livestock is a big area when you talk about climate change,” Merrigan said. As the world becomes wealthier, it is projected there will be a 70 percent growth in livestock product consumption. “So much for meatless Monday, huh? We just know that’s true, because as the world becomes wealthier, more developed, people start eating more livestock products.”
Even as steps should be taken to reverse this trend, this is not the time to decouple livestock from agriculture, she said. She applauded two livestock related agriculture efforts. One is the “more grass, less gas” movement and the second, the “power to poop” movement.
She cited studies in which dairy cattle fed with grass rather than grain emitted 12 percent less methane gas. And given that 95 percent of dairy farms in this country have fewer than 500 cows, if every one of these farms went to grass feed, the resulting emissions decrease would be the equivalent of removing a half a million vehicles from our roads. Another initiative is the move to cap manure pits to produce methane gas for energy. Merrigan said that while this approach remains relatively expensive for the small farmer, it will play a role in the future.
Agroforestry, putting “the right tree in the right place for the right purpose” on farms, is another effort Merrigan says we should applaud. Less than one percent of the land suitable for agroforestry is currently being utilized that way. Alley cropping, forest farming, wind breaks and “Silvopasture” are applications to make our farms more economically viable, to be more sustainable, and to help with climate change. Agroforestry, says Merrigan, stores more carbon deeper in the soil.
Finally, Merrigan encourages a “panic for organic.” She said, “I really believe that organic agriculture has pioneered some of the most important practices that are sustainable and will help with climate change.” Proven practices such as crop rotation, cover crops, use of perennials and carbon sequestration all represent opportunities to address the concerns over climate change and population growth.
What Can We Learn from China About Feeding the World
Jim Harkness, Senior Adviser on China, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, lived in China for 16 years. He discussed three lessons from his China experience applicable to food security challenges facing the world.
“When we’re talking about feeding the planet and the impacts of agriculture, diet, and consumption really trump population,” Harkness said. As the population becomes wealthier, processed food, meat, and fried foods become more popular. He said China consumes more pork per capita than does America, more meat of all types per capita than does Japan. And Japan’s per capita income is eight times greater than China’s. Harkness says this is unsustainable and unhealthy and out of proportion to China’s economic well-being. In order to feed the livestock to meet this rate of consumption, they import over 50 percent of the world’s soybean production.
The second lesson Harkness takes from his China experience relates an ancient Chinese practice called ever-normal granaries. The government bought grain from the farmers in years of surplus, keeping it in government granaries until a period of famine, when it was sold to the people at a fixed price.
Harkness said Henry Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture during the heart of the depression in 1932, instituted an American version of the ever-normal granaries and ushered in the most prosperous period for American farmers ever.
“By the 1980s, however, Americans had forgotten this Chinese lesson,” he said. Following the 1996 farm bill, efficient markets economists dismantled this system in the U.S and urged other countries to do the same, contending that the long-run costs of such price controls were greater than a free and open market.
The problem with abandoning this long-term average view, Harkness said, is that food cost spikes affect consumers in the short term. In the 2007-2008 world food crisis, open market practices left poor countries competing with rich countries and they could not afford to pay the higher prices. Further, some food producing countries banned exports as they did not have enough to feed their own people. Harkness said the result was 100 million extra hungry people.
China National Grain Corporation’s practice of building up reserves when prices were low allowed China to be a net exporter even though their demand was growing faster.
The concept of food reserves is being revived in many parts of the world, even though the practice is subject to corruption, political manipulation, bad management, and drives production to a narrow band of commodities. Harkness said that having a reserve is a lot less costly than not having one when needed.
His third lesson for audience members was that agriculture is a driver for economic development. “Look at what China has achieved, not just in feeding its people, but improving its living standards,” Harkness said, adding that China feeds 20 percent of the world’s population on nine percent of the world’s arable land. It does so not with a heavily industrialized model, but from 200 million farms an acre in size. Crop yields from these small farms have kept pace with population growth for the past four decades.
Agriculture revenue came first and fueled China’s manufacturing boom. During the 1980s and 1990s, rural income grew faster than did urban income. There was more food, better health, and widely spread prosperity.
Harkness said that if we are looking for the key policies and principals that led to this positive outcome, we could consider these: Smart investment in public good—roads, communication, agricultural extension, agricultural research, and irrigation; Land for the individual household to spur investment in increased productivity; Price incentives; Gradual phasing out of central planning and collective assets; and Prevention of large collection of land or capital.
Harkness said that the combination of these policies and principles created an enabling environment. Government intervened to address the inequalities of political, household, and marketplace power, access to product resources, markets, and information.
X-Farming: Coming to a Planet Near You
David Gustafson, Senior Science Fellow, Monsanto Company, gave a talk on farming in an era of accelerating demand and extreme weather.
“If we were somehow to magically stop all emissions of greenhouse gases, we still have another three degrees Fahrenheit or so global warming built into the system,” Gustafson said.
He has been involved in a US National Climate Assessment that confirms climate change is taking place, particularly drought. One of the gradual effects of these changes has been the northward movement of planting zones and the diseases associated with these zones. In some cases, zones have moved as much as 200 miles over the past 22 years.
It is not only temperature change, but also an increase in weeds, insects, disease, and deterioration of soil health that is happening. Gustafson is concentrating on soil, as this is an area where resilience to the negative effects of increased temperature can be built. Gustafson said practices that increase the amount of water retained in the soil, such as incorporating more organic matter in the soil and cover crops, will be more important going forward.
Gustafson said that while some arable land will be coming out of crop production, it is possible that in the near future equal amounts of arable land will be coming into production. The availability of water will be a critical factor for these new arable lands to be productive.
Gustafson said the use of better seeds and a small amount of mechanization could yield as much as 335 million more tons of grain. This is an amount more than China currently produces. Gustafson also pointed to a study in which the use of better seeds and a small amount of mechanization resulted in greater eco-efficiency.
Looking forward, Gustafson said that an “all the above” approach will have to take place to meet the demands of increased population and climate change. Seed advances, biotechnology, cover crops and farmer uses of information technology and big data will all play a role.
Gustafson said that at Monsanto they are seeing yields of 140 bushels per acre grow to 240 bushels per acre using a field-strip approach. And soon, farmers will be able to control which hybrid seed, the amount of each seed, as well how much nutrient to apply within each square meter of a field.
Gustafson said a recent acquisition by Monsanto will allow it to help farmers use big data to manage their activity based on short term weather predictions.
Q: Climate Change: How and why did it become politicized in this country?
Gustafson: I think it was two things, personally. I think there was a bit of overreach in the early days. There was a lot of frustration on the part of some of the individual scientists [in the 1980s] who were frustrated that they weren’t getting any traction. I do think it had the potential for causing some doubt as to motives. I also think it did become a bit of a political issue early on.
Harkness: Let’s think for a minute who might benefit from society not taking strong steps to address climate change. For me, it’s not a complicated question. I think the amount of money the fossil fuel industry has put into disinformation and denial, that’s well documented.
Merrigan: If you’re 25 or younger, whether or not this issue is politicized, you’re just scared. We have a responsibility to talk about this in a way that is very cognizant of the anxiety that young people have when we face climate change.
Q: Can you address Monsanto’s corporate practices of patenting traditional seeds, traditional organic systems in some cases, and the monopolistic elements in some of the practices …Could you comment on those corporate elements that seem to limit and exploit and prevent the more open processes?
Gustafson: Without patents, which are described in our Constitution here, we really don’t have an incentive for innovation. … Can you have hybrid maize systems coexisting with those who choose to plant open pollinated varieties? …I really do believe there is plenty of room for organic and other methods of production, but I also do believe that we ought to be maintaining a choice.
Merrigan: It’s really fast-moving and difficult science and I think our government hasn’t always calibrated their patent decisions well. It really takes a high degree of training to be able to make the right decisions.
Harkness: [remarking on consolidation of pork industry in China] They are succeeding not because they are offering a better product, but because they’ve bought out their competition. I think that it’s concerns of that nature, about choice, that motivate questions I have about big data and who owns seeds and these kinds of things…A lot of the history of America’s economy has also been about keeping opportunity open, rather than foreclosing it through the concentration of ownership, whether it’s of companies or information.
Q: Could you elaborate on and/or define ‘better seeds’? Have there been advances in the nutritional value of higher yield corn?
Gustafson: I believe that the nutritional content of corn grain hasn’t changed all that much in recent years. It’s important for not just the farmer, but also their customer that the grain would still have all the properties that are desired by their customers. When I use the term “better seed,” I am generally speaking about seed that is higher yielding, better disease-resistant, perhaps heat-tolerant, drought-tolerant, all the other traits that we’re trying to add to our seeds through our breeding programs.
Merrigan: I attended a food tasting event that brought together some of the world’s greatest chefs and plant breeders. I saw this Cornell plant breeder say, “I was so excited when Dan Barber [a chef] asked me to breed something for taste, because in my whole career I’ve only been asked to breed for yield, for resistance, for uniformity; and now I’m being asked to breed for taste and for nutrition.”
Q: Is there potential for large-scale production of biofuels to coexist with large-scale production of food anytime in the next 50 to 100 years?
Merrigan: Biofuels come in many forms. I think we as country have been stuck on the ethanol model. But I think even the government at this point has moved off of a focus on ethanol to a different generation of biofuel crops.
Gustafson: There are a number of different biofuel crops being looked at. One of the reasons that corn ethanol happened here in the US is that there was a time in the late 1990s where it was actually more cost-effective for a farmer to burn corn grain for its heat value than to burn diesel…But there are some benefits that aren’t thought about too much.
Q: What do panelists think about whether small-scale agro-ecological farming can feed the world in a sustainable way, and if it can, why shouldn’t we be promoting those practices?
Merrigan: I have a lot of friends who work at Monsanto and I don’t think that we should just write off the whole company. We need to engage in dialog with the company. They represent a lot of farmers in this country and a lot of acreage, so to the extent that we are on a learning journey here as a community talking about issues, I think it’s really important that we engage with them.
Gustafson: I do think Monsanto has realized we have failed to enter into those dialogues, and we are entering those dialogues…inviting folks such as yourself one-on-one to come visit and tell us your views. I extend that invitation out… I do think that there is plenty of room for both types of production and many other types of production to thrive and survive and learn from each other.
Harkness: Small farmers of all different kinds are already feeding the world by and large, especially since so much of what’s planted on very large farms is fed to animals or is turned into industrial products of different kinds. Farmers respond to incentives, and right now the incentives in the marketplace say, “Do what you can to raise yields in the short term,” and that means chemical pesticides and fertilizers. I think that some sort of transition to a more agro-ecological approach globally would require a massive investment in farmers and in technology.
Q: What role does ethics and morality play in all of this?
Gustafson: To me the biggest moral imperative of all here is, in fact, the nutrition security issue that’s being caused in part by climate change. I think it is tremendously wrong for us to be consuming as much food as we do in the developed world when there is so much of the planet that is suffering without.
Merrigan: If there was a moral issue I want to raise [it’s] the role of women farmers in the world. Calestous said it just right. He said, “What’s the answer? It’s commencement.” It’s treatment of women, getting young women educated in the developing world.
Harkness: I think there’s a challenge in thinking about ethics and economic behavior, because the shareholders aren’t that interested in ethics; they’re interested in shareholder value. In some ways, I think that rather than questioning the ethics of corporations, it’s society’s job in a democracy to hold them to societal standards and say, “You have to pursue profit within this set of constraints,” that ensure that it doesn’t threaten the well-being of people in your own country or other countries or the planet.
Kathleen Merrigan is a former Deputy Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture where she oversaw its daily operations and also served on the President’s Management Council, working to improve accountability and performance throughout the federal government. Merrigan managed the USDA’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative, highlighting the critical connection between farmers and consumers and supporting local and regional food systems that increase economic opportunity in rural America. Prior to her government work, she was Director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment graduate program at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.
Jim Harkness is the Senior Advisor on China and former President of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, an NGO that works locally and globally to ensure fair and sustainable food, farm and trade systems. He previously served as President of IATP, as Executive Director of the World Wildlife Fund in China, and as the Environment and Development Program Director for the Ford Foundation. He has written and spoken frequently on China and sustainable development and has served as an advisor to the World Bank and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
David Gustafson is a Senior Science Fellow at Monsanto Company, where he serves as the regulatory lead for Water Quality and Agricultural Sustainability. His research on agriculture-related environmental challenges has spanned nearly 30 years. In 2007, he served as an inaugural member and lead for the Monsanto Fellows Climate Change Panel, which assessed the degree of scientific certainty in global climate modeling and its likely impact on the world’s agriculture. He serves on various Monsanto teams examining new imperatives and constraints placed on agriculture by man-made global warming, hypoxia, and other environmental challenges.
The Limits of Global Governance
Responsibility for food security today, declared Wellesley College Professor Robert Paarlberg, rests ultimately in the hands of governments of sovereign states. Not multilateral corporations, not intergovernmental organizations, not international nongovernmental organizations, and certainly not the politically powerless who “don’t have the political voice that they need. If they did, things would be much better.”
Paarlberg, the author of Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know, said: “It’s a reality that we can’t wish away, and it’s not an ideal situation for food security—particularly if you’re a citizen of North Korea or Zimbabwe or Syria.”
“In the area of food and farming,” he acknowledged, “the project of building global governance has not gone very far.” What exists today is “a contest between the international-level institutions and national-level institutions,” with the latter retaining “exclusive sovereign jurisdiction over what goes on within their boundaries.”
Paarlberg reviewed recent international attempts to establish global food security that essentially went nowhere. The G-8 Summit in 2012 at Camp David produced only “a hastily choreographed pledge by private companies” to invest in agricultural development projects in Africa—where, in fact, “the greatest investment needs are for public goods, like roads and power and education.” The 2011 G-20 Summit in Cannes failed to produce agreement on any of host Nicholas Sarkozy’s three agenda items on food security.
Turning to the World Trade Organization (WTO), Paarlberg explained that it has “limited teeth” and doesn’t make the rules: “It’s nothing more than a meeting place where separate national governments attempt to negotiate new agreements among themselves.” Since the WTO operates by consensus, any government can block agreements, as occurred during the organization’s Doha Round—“launched in 2001 and adjourned without agreement in 2008.”
Assessing organizations within the United Nations system, Paarlberg said that the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) unfortunately “is an organization that you can’t count on to govern global food and farming systems.” At its 2009 World Food Summit, for instance, delegates read prepared speeches and ended up with a bland, unfunded, nonbinding resolution. “This is not the way serious politics takes place,” he noted.
Paarlberg expressed higher regard for the UN World Food Program (WFP), stating that it has had “a proven record for preventing famine in Africa and Pakistan.” But its hands are tied without local governmental cooperation, and “it has to beg those governments for its resources.” For instance, the WFP was barred from delivery of food assistance to North Korea in the mid-1990s, resulting in “a terrible famine in which more than a million North Koreans starved to death.” Even today, the Syrian government has blocked the WFP from “delivering relief to about 250,000 civilians in opposition-controlled territory, and a serious food crisis is underway.” Outsiders, he declared, “can’t prevent national governments from harming their own citizens.”
He next cited another international institution—actually a network of research institutions chaired by the World Bank—the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGAIR), which “has a record of success in introducing technologies that can help farmers in developing countries.” But, he stressed, “there are limits. In order to get technology into the hands of farmers,” competent partners are needed at the local level. In agricultural research, problem solving requires “constant interactive relations with local farming communities.” These nations need extension services, agricultural research facilities, and other means of disseminating information and support. Without such institutions at the national level, “the international centers find it extremely difficult to deliver benefits.” In Africa today, he continued, “these national-level institutions have been underfunded and underdeveloped.” In a continent where 60 percent of its citizens are farmers and herders, only 5 percent of the countries’ budgets are designated for agricultural development, and almost no funding goes to agricultural research.
As for multinational corporations with global reach, such as Walmart, Archer Daniels Midland, Monsanto, McDonald’s, and Cargill, their efforts are typically stymied by national
governments that erect high trade barriers, set their own regulatory systems, and use these rules to exercise power.
“Arguments are often made that companies like these can control outcomes by monopolizing markets or by influencing governments with bribes, campaign contributions, or whatever,” said Paarlberg. But he has not found these arguments persuasive: “National governments are still for the most part in control.” For instance, Walmart tried for a decade to get multi-brand stores into India, but the government demanded that 30 percent of the food products be sourced from within India—a stipulation that no other corporation had been required to meet. “So Walmart backed off and walked away.”
On the topic of international grain trade, said Paarlberg, there’s often criticism that “the big grain-trading companies monopolize world food markets. But only 10 percent of food supplies are ever traded internationally.“ These large multinational corporations “don’t set the rules under which food crosses borders. If they did, there wouldn’t be the high barriers to international trade that exist today. These companies were desperate for the Doha Round to succeed so that the high national barriers would go down,” but, said Paarlberg, “a lot of governments in the developing world have national self-sufficiency policies that block the aspirations of these trading companies to expand” agricultural commerce. Under WTO guidelines, for instance, “India can, if it wants, impose 100 percent tariffs.”
On the subject of the power of companies that sell patented seeds, Paarlberg said, “Critics sometimes forget that each government determines what kinds of intellectual property rights it’s willing to recognize.” In only a handful of countries is it even legal to register a patent on seeds. In Africa today, noted Paarlberg, “only Sudan, Burkina Faso, and South Africa have made it legal for farmers to plant genetically engineered seeds.” Monsanto, for instance, has “lost every battle” with trying to introduce genetically engineered food crops in developing countries—defeated by governments on the one hand and nongovernmental organizations such as Oxfam, Greenpeace, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and La Via Campesina on the other.
“In food and agriculture,” said Paarlberg, “nongovernmental organizations are extremely important. They do a marvelous job of delivering services and training,” but they don’t have the resources to provide poor countries with critical infrastructure—“rural roads, rural power, irrigation, agricultural research, rule of law, property rights, land reform. These are things that must be done in the public sector. If national governments don’t do them, they won’t happen.”
“So what is it,” asked Paarlberg, “in the so-called age of globalization, that allows these antiquated institutions to retain so much control in the food and farming sector?” Again, it’s “the rules of international law that give national governments exclusive sovereign jurisdiction to determine what crosses their borders, and exclusive options to tax and regulate what goes on inside their borders.”
Yet, admitted Paarlberg, “despite this antiquated system of separate sovereign nation-states being in control, substantial progress has been made in reducing the prevalence of chronic under-nutrition in the developing world.” He screened an FAO chart reflecting encouraging reductions in chronic under-nutrition between the years 1990 and 1992 as well as between 2010 and 2012: In Asia, it dropped from 24 to 14 percent; in Africa, from 28 to 23 percent; and in Latin America and the Caribbean, from 15 to 8 percent. By way of explanation for these promising results, Paarlberg said that democratic elections have occurred in more and more countries, and, “as democracy has spread, food security has improved”—a corollary to economist Amartya Sen’s observation: “There has never been a famine in a democratic country.”
In conclusion, Paarlberg noted the irony that with a decline in under-nutrition has come an increase in “over-nutrition.” Although the United States is “the leader in excessive consumption, many others are following in our path, and we haven’t yet come up with an appropriate and achievable set of policy responses” to this obesity problem.
Paarlberg fielded questions on trade treaties, on economic constraints from France in Francophone Africa, on China and India’s market-based economies, and then a final one from a University of Maine student, who asked: “What can we do? Where should we go from here?” Paarlberg responded by urging attendees to pressure elected officials to step up appropriations for America’s development assistance spending, which decreased in Africa 86 percent between 1985 and 2006 and has only slightly increased since then. “Your representative in Congress,” he concluded, “is a good place to start.”
Robert Paarlberg, Adjunct Professor of Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, is an independent scholar and consultant specializing in global food and agricultural policy. He is the Betty Freyhof Johnson Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College and an Associate at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. He is the author of Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa (Harvard University Press) and Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press).
Growing the Local Farmers’ Markets:
“How do we build a healthy, sustainable food system more immediately,” a system that encourages healthy eating while also ensuring that our food is “grown, picked, processed, transported, and prepared by people earning a livable wage?” In a presentation to address this question, Gus Schumacher provided insight and a few solutions.
After sharing a brief anecdote about the evolution of winter farming in Maine developed by Eliot Colman, Schumacher identified several economic issues confronting the planet’s food systems, chiefly that we have a great deal of price volatility related to the lack of food reserves. Because of this, and because of an anticipated boom in the number of people earning between $2 and $10 a day, “nearly 650 million more people by 2025 will have access to three things: An improved diet, largely consisting of more meat; cell phones; and diabetes.” In America alone, nearly 39 million more people in that $2-$10 range will be living in mega-cities and will need healthy provisions.
Schumacher suggested New England’s food demands, specifically those in the emerging mega-cities, could be met through Maine’s re-establishment as a regional farming center. “We have the land, the water, and a growing interest among the state’s young people,” he said. “Today, there are over 10,000 Eliot Colemans growing vegetables year-round in Maine.”
With a slide depicting a 42-acre year-round tomato growing operation, Backyard Tomatoes, in Madison, Maine, the audience was asked to consider the cost of such an operation and why it works. The answer is fuel, reinforcing the argument for Maine to once more assume a stronger agricultural role. Schumacher said the facility in Madison was constructed because “diesel prices affect the feasibility of large scale, year-round growing operations. Today, Backyard Tomatoes produces 10 percent of the Northeast’s tomatoes.”
Shifting his attention to water, Schumacher spoke about the more flexible approach many African farmers have when planting seeds. Water availability dictates the crops they’ll grow, and that system has been less taxing on the farmers and the land. In the American Midwest, we were asked, “What will we do when the Ogallala Aquifer runs dry in 10-15 years?” Consider the water shortages faced by the state of California. Wage inequality and outright unemployment among migrant farm workers will add to what is already a politically charged issue.
On the consumer side of the equation, what types of fruits and vegetables will the next generation of farmers grow? The young people of today have “changed the way we look at food. When I was young we would hang out with Julia Child on PBS and that was it,” he said. “Today, the Food Network is wildly popular with young people.”
Drawing on his experience at the Wholesome Wave Foundation, Schumacher showed a photograph of a young woman selling Halal meat at a Maine Farmers Market to illustrate how farmers need to adapt not only to soil and water conditions, but to rapidly changing demographics and market demands as well. Schumacher estimated that perhaps “as many as 25 million people are making a second stop at farmers markets on the way home from the grocery store to buy fresh produce. The demand will continue to grow.”
On the topic of “How We Eat,” Schumacher observed, “The global spread of obesity will be felt acutely in Maine as the costs associated with diabetes reach $1.2 billion over the next 20 years.”
Compounding the issue, American children are on average “exposed to 5,500 junk food impressions per year. So, your children and your grandchildren are seeing enormous amount of advertising for junk food,” he said. To provide some background on how thoroughly the public health has deteriorated, Schumacher said we have to go back to 1939, when Milo Perkins stated that the purpose of the recently introduced Food Stamp Program was, “to improve farmer income as well as public health.”
Later, in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson amended the language of the bill to exclude soft drinks, luxury foods and frozen foods. Today, “Food Stamps allow nearly anything but tobacco and alcohol,” Schumacher said. “How did we let this happen?”
Concluding his presentation with a call to action, Schumacher asked, “What is the role of the medical fraternity, through the Affordable Care Act, as we move to insure more of the uninsured? How can hospitals train their doctors to prescribe not just metformin for diabetes or Lipitor for cholesterol, but a vegetable prescription?”
One solution can be found in Wholesome Wave’s Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Pack, which provides daily servings of fresh produce to diabetics and the obese being treated at eight hospitals as part of a pilot program. The “V-Pack” has led to “a reduction in patient BMI [body mass index] and a positive shift in mood and behavior.” Concurrently, an increased number of V-Pack prescriptions, “Should also lead to an increase in fair wages for farmers as that market expands.”
Schumacher completed his talk by highlighting potential goals for a healthy food system by the year 2020. Among a list of questions, he asked the audience, “By 2020 will all Americans on food stamps and schools have access to fair, affordable, sustainable and healthy food? By 2020, will 100,000 fruit and vegetable farmers selling at farmers’ markets…become pharmacies…filling the prescriptions of American doctors for millions of families with pre-diabetes or BMIs… at 10,000 farmers’ markets? And by 2020 will food no longer be a weapon?”
Gus Schumacher is Vice President of Policy at the Wholesome Wave Foundation in Westport, Connecticut, an organization that helps local farmers around the country supply healthy, sustainably grown produce at farmers’ markets to underserved neighborhoods. Gus Schumacher served as Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services at the US Department of Agriculture from 1997 to 2001, as well as Administrator of the Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, and as Commissioner of Food and Agriculture for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Schumacher is a member of the 21st Century Sustainable Agricultural Task Force of the National Academy of Sciences and was recently honored with a James Beard Foundation Leadership Award.
Final Panel Highlights
The final hour and a half of the conference brought speakers back to the stage for a panel discussion, where they answered audience questions and summarized each of their top action items for the attendees to take away from the event. Sunday’s panel, moderated by John Piotti, included Jim Harkness, Robert Paarlberg, David Gustafson, Kathleen Merrigan, Fred Kirschenmann, Gus Schumacher, Calestous Juma and Andrew Guzman.
Q: What are your thoughts about Coca-Cola promotion at the conference? Are there fundamental differences of opinion about Fred Kirschenmann’s earlier statement about how our current system is designed around “maximum efficiency for maximum short-term economic return”?
Schumacher: I was surprised at the Grocery Manufacturers Association when they attacked the Mexican president for the eight-peso tax on sugary drinks. The more serious one is the encouragement by a number of governments in Latin America to begin to deal with obesity and the pushback by certain groups.
Guzman: I don’t think we should view the problem as an effort to maximize efficiency. [The question is] are we doing it in a way that ignores important costs, in particular, future costs? The answer is yes…we’re really very bad at having today’s humans make decisions that take into account tomorrow’s humans. The problem isn’t that this is new; the problem is we’re now able to do it in a way that really threatens future generations.
Harkness: One of the challenges is maximization vs. optimization. Agriculture and food touch on so many different areas that are of social and environmental concern.
Paarlberg: I would agree the problem is too much short-term thinking. I don’t think the problem is seeking efficiencies or high productivity. Conventional agriculture in the United States has prospered by reducing input use per bushel of production. It’s sometimes not appreciated that conventional farming is making money today not just by boosting yields, but by making more precise applications of input and reducing costly interventions like tillage.
Merrigan: I do want to embrace the notion of efficiency. Chellie [Pingree] shared with us the story of lean finely textured beef (“pink slime”). I…took a very unpopular position when things started to rock and roll in the press and I said, “It’s safe to eat,” because it was safe to eat; it is safe to eat. Is it what I want to eat? Is it what I want my kids to eat? Is it appealing? No. But, it just shows how the industry has gotten so that it uses every single bit of protein; it’s so efficient. And then I look at my guys in sustainable agriculture…and they’re only selling the best cuts…and there’s just a lot of loss there. So, my challenge to everyone in the audience who cares about sustainability is to think about efficiency and how that’s built into any kind of system that we’re setting up.
Q: Help us understand empowering $750 billion worth of food expenditure, without even beginning the discussion on what one is allowed to purchase with taxpayer funded assistance.
Merrigan: There’s an assumption that people who are poor, who are SNAP recipients, make demonstrably different diet choices than the rest of the people. We have studies that show that poor people are making the same bad choices the rest of us are. Most SNAP recipients are children and disabled, and there are a whole lot of people eligible for SNAP who don’t take advantage of it. I hate anything that demonizes the SNAP program. How do we improve, how do we be innovative, how do we get win-wins? We need to have the conversations in a tone of understanding about how people must feel if they’re on SNAP, and…how they’re being talked about in the press and by their politicians.
Kirschenmann: One thing I think that may be as important for us all to understand is that people in the food business have a lot of power. The reason people have so much power in food is…if you lose a food customer, you can’t just get your existing customers to eat more.
Q: We have missed the boat by not addressing population issues, specifically limits of growth or overpopulation.
Guzman: There’s no disputing that Malthus got it right. The question is a matter of timing. We don’t know whether we’re at the point where the geometric growth in population is outstripping the inevitably arithmetic ability to extract resources. We know that healthy economic growth leads to more stable or lower population growth.
Gustafson: If you do have sustainable development in agricultural systems in the developing world, many of those individuals are women farmers and by increasing their economic viability you tend to have results that lead to a slowing in population growth. If we have leaders at the national level in sub-Saharan Africa and otherwise that are investing more in ag (sic) development, that would likely result into the slowing of population growth.
Q: Could you tell us whether or not the new farm bill continues the subsidy for ethanol, and whether that makes sense either from an economic point of view or an ethical point of view?
Merrigan: The 2014 farm bill continues in slightly different ways, support for commodity crops, of which corn is one. The ethanol industry is getting the message that they need to become more competitive without government support, if they’re going to continue.
Juma: One of the unintended consequences of the ethanol boom in the US has been getting African countries to realize they can’t continue to depend on food aid from the US anymore.
Merrigan: One of the things we’re trying to do in agricultural food aid is, rather than sending our commodities to country X, [we] try to then provide cash dollars to country X to help build their own food system. USAID and USDA are working together as part of the “Feed the Future” initiative.
Q: Most of the discussion is focused on agriculture and less on water. Could you address the issue of water policy as it relates to sustainable agriculture and our shrinking water supply? Also, should Maine rethink our water resources as a source of income and support since we are a water-rich state?
Gustafson: I believe there ought to be greater investment in infrastructure to retain water, and reuse it on the farm when we need it. In general, I do think we do need to be investing in small-scale water infrastructure to hold water for farmers, in a way that isn’t really happening now.
Merrigan: Perennialism is something we don’t think enough about, for healthy soils, economics, for water. With climate change here we really need to think these things through.
Guzman: The forces at work to create water crises are just bigger than human beings are capable to resist, as long as we’re pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at rates anything like we’re doing now. There’s only one solution, and that is to bring climate change under control.
Merrigan: Certainly you need a governance system, if you are water-rich and you think that people are going to be knocking at your door. But you have to be really careful. Government structures are really important, but they have to be right, they have to be good, and they’re not easy to construct.
Juma: There are countries that are thinking about water in the way people thought about oil 70 years ago. Maybe have a look at the way Canadians are thinking about it. I think they have the intent to sell their water to a neighboring country.
Q: Do you know of national or international programs, which are actually dealing with CO2? How do we get rid of it? Is there a way to get rid of it? What suggestions would you have?
Guzman: The scientists say, “We’re researching carbon capture.” It’s not the answer. We’re not close to being able to capture carbon on a scale that would matter. The research is important but it’s not a solution in the short term.
Kirschenmann: There isn’t one quick, easy solution to solve this. We’ve got to change the system. We restore the biological health of soil, we restore our forests, and that doesn’t necessarily mean we take them out of food production. There are a number of things we have to do if we’re going to solve this problem.
Paarlberg: The best thing to do is something the American political system finds it extremely difficult to do, and that is to tax carbon. An international agreement on carbon taxes would solve the collective action problem and give governments new revenues they could use to compensate losers, to invest R&D in non-fossil fuel energy resources and to reduce taxes of other kinds.
Q: With the decrease in hunger that you’ve seen, could you speak to the point that international family planning has a direct correlation to that?
Paarlberg: Population isn’t really a matter of total numbers on the planet. I’m fully in support of family assistance planning, and child and maternal health interventions that make family planning much easier, but for me, it’s first a human rights issue for women. Then it’s a child and maternal health issue. Then that only creates an opportunity that you have to exploit to make much larger investments in the health and the education of the children, so the next generation will aspire to smaller families.
Q: If we did most things right relative to carbon, is it even possible to stop or sufficiently retard the glacial melt, and secondly, is it possible to have a sustainable water supply in place of glacier melt?
Guzman: The sad reality is it’s never too late, and that’s not a good thing. Climate change is unlikely to be an extinction event for our species, which means no matter how bad things get, we can make it worse. The way climate change comes under control is one of two ways. Either human beings find a way to limit their greenhouse gas emissions, or we don’t.
Q: What can all of us do to take the next step from the learning of this weekend?
Guzman: The United States can do one thing even more easily than give money for infrastructure or train engineers; and that is, let the poor people of the world sell their agricultural products in this country, on fair terms. I agree the answer is a carbon tax. The key players, the US, Europe, and China have to sit at a table, and they have to sit at a table where most of the other countries in the world are not present…no more than one or two more, and a deal has to be struck, and has to be enforced.
Juma: Being able to start early is really important. Early childhood education might hold the key to really starting to build a new ethic, a new sustainability ethic, even before kids get to school. If we can get education right from fairly early on, you have a much better chance of an uptake of new ideas and technologies. As someone said, human beings are very open to new ideas, so long as they look just like the old ones.
Schumacher: One is healthcare and two is technology. It is important for doctors to talk to their COOs at their hospitals and basically get them to look at their community benefit reporting to help them get reimbursed and get the veggie prescription or “v-pack.” I think there is a need for technology. In Kenya, you can use an iPhone or a smartphone and transfer money. But if you’re a food stamp client or WIC client, using your EBT systems, the technology simply is very clunky. We can learn a lot from Kenya on how to use a smartphone.
Kirschenmann: This next generation of young people always inspire me and they’ll inspire you as well. We’re going to be transitioning out of an industrial economy into a “post neo-caloric economy.” So, we’re going to have to really think about not just keeping the current system going, but what we need to do to transition to the system of the future. The kind of management we need to employ is adaptive management, not control management. That’s an attitude I think we all need to internalize.
Merrigan: 1) Farm to School Programs: every community should have one. 2) We get a lot of young people who are starting farming operations, but don’t necessarily have business training. So, if you’re from the business community and you care about these issues, find a young farmer and contribute your time. 3) Vote with your fork.
Gustafson: I really want to mention this book again, The World We Made. Something like half of food production will move to urban settings by 2020. That’s one of the biggest mega-trends that’s coming for sure. I’d really like to say that we’d like to collaborate and talk more with folks.
Paarlberg: Buy a ticket, get on plane, fly to any capital city in East or West Africa, leave your hotel, hire a sturdy vehicle, head up-country, get off the tarmac road, walk into a farming community, and look around you and notice how many things are missing. These people do not have any of the things that farmers in the rest of the world have used to escape poverty, to increase their productivity, to allow their children to be well fed. When you’ve seen it with your own eyes you’ll know where the deficits are and you’ll find a way to help close those deficits.
Harkness: There’s been a lot of pessimism about population growth and climate and the inevitability of things continuing to get worse. One reason I disagree with the inevitability of those things is that human communities are not like the colonies of rats in those Malthusian experiments that all end up eating each other. And the reason is that we can make choices as a society. And that’s called democracy. I think Americans would want to help African countries develop the infrastructure, I think Americans would want to tax carbon, I think Americans would want to get unhealthy food out of schools. The problem is, we have a broken democracy. One thing I would recommend is, take your privilege as an American citizen, and go help fix democracy by getting the influence of money out of politics. I think we have to get into direct negotiations, not multilateral ones, and the initial conversations will be like the one we had last night. There is a huge chasm between our two historical narratives. But we have to keep bringing people together to talk to prevent war. The kind of exchange we had yesterday is far preferable to war.