A forum on “The Future of Food, Feeding the Planet During Climate Change” took place at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and was presented jointly with the Public Radio International program, “The World,” and WGBH on Tuesday, December 13.
The panelists were academics, researchers and experts: Assistant professor of Environmental Health and Exposure Disparities at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Gary Adamkiewicz, Senior Ecologist at the Climate Change Program Office of USDA Margaret Walsh, Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard Kennedy School Calestous Juma, and Principal Investigator/Director of the Open Agriculture Initiative at the MIT Media Lab Caleb Harper.
The gist of this event was how we shall continue feeding the planet in light of the climate change and the “population monster,” that is the estimate of 9.7 billion people inhabiting the earth by 2050.
The main questions posed both by the presenter and the audience revolved around population growth, technology, the new Trump administration, GMOs, seafood decline, and the switch toward a more plant-based diet.
For overpopulation and food sustainability, Adamkiewicz started the topic by informing that there are 7 billion people on the Earth and, by the time a person born in the U.S. reaches voting age, the earth may host 8 billion people, most of whom will live in the cities. “Feeding this population in a sustainable, affordable and equitable way will be a challenge,” he admitted.
Walsh stressed that today there are 800 million undernourished people in the world and, by some estimates, 2 billion people receive insufficient nutrients, even while humanity wastes between a quarter and a half of the food it produces.
“In the ’70s, the question was: How do we feed all the people? Now, the question is: How do we feed them in a more sustainable and resource-optimization way,” continued Harper.
Juma steered the conversation towards developing countries and the (understated) impact of climate change on food production there.
“Most studies focus on the yields of specific crops, and rarely include the decision of farmers. An example is Brazil, where farmers have two croppings a year, but when faced with rising temperatures, they may reduce them to one cropping a year, bringing on a significant reduction in output.”
Juma said that in areas dry and arid like Africa, people are abandoning farming altogether and the large-scale abandonment is starting to add up much faster than the pace at which agricultural centers are coming up with new varieties.
Walsh also noted that an aspect traditionally overlooked in the debate over food and climate change is food security. “Food security has made a lot of progress over the last 25 years, as the percentage of undernourished people around the world dropped from 19 to 11, one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments,” she said.
“There are a lot of sensitivities of the production system to climate, however. For example, a heat spike in the pollination phase of a crop can destroy a crop in half a day.”
So, how could we employ technology to tackle these problems? What would be our ultimate technological frontiers in an agriculture threatened by climate change?
Harper phrased his proposals in technical terms. Among his tech-savvy suggestions were: produce healthier plant microbiomes, or even synthetic microbiomes, employ satellites, microsatellites or drones to gather agricultural data from the field and well-articulating the findings; understand phenotypic expression of plants in a much more robust way, make edits on plant genes and have these edits passed down to next plant generations.
Harper also talked about a “food server” his lab has created, a little box that can create climate regardless of place, and which can free people from “climate slavery.”
Juma grounded the conversation to Africa’s non-technological reality, saying that in a continent of poor infrastructure the ultimate technological challenge might be to build human capabilities and train young farmers in a dynamic way. “Young Africans are not fleeing farming, they are fleeing poverty,” he said.
“Humanity has enjoyed a stable climate over the 10,000-year lifespan of agriculture, but we are now entering a new period of climate instability and on this technology should focus,” Walsh said.
Adamkiewicz, on the other hand, pointed out the need to move from conventional systems to sustainably conventional ones, and to support farmers and producers who “are doing the right thing,” technologically, probably through small business loans.
“I want to invite the elephant into the room,” Thomson said at one point. “The Trump administration…will it change everything you do? I mean they are climate change deniers, and do not focus on innovation, but would rather recreate an image of agriculture of the U.S. as it was 40 to 50 years ago… What do you think??
Apart from Walsh who said she could not speculate as the transition is too young, the other speakers expressed some opinion.
Adamkiewicz said there are undeniable facts pointing to the reality of climate change, the droughts in the U.S. Midwest being a strong case in point. “The Mississippi was at a level where you could not move barges and we have to call out these examples,” he said.
Harper said that “to his mind,” overly significant STEM education is part of the republican party agenda, and Juma said that African country leaders have stopped relying on international agreements after the debatable results of Copenhagen, Dublin and Cancun. “They have understood they need to do the act of housekeeping on their own,” Juma stated.
The online forum gave an opportunity to the audience to ask the panelists questions. People seemed concerned about GMOs, a more plant-based diet and the decline in global seafood.
For GMOs, the experts gave answers contrary to popular belief. “We don’t have a big body of evidence that GMOs are that bad,” answered Adamkiewicz and shifted the focus on the marriage of crop varieties with pesticides. Harper adopted the same approach.
“Everything you have eaten for the past 15,000 years of farming is GMO. Corn is not what it used to be, farming is not natural! We need a better conversation on what natural means,” he said, appearing more worried about the quality of food rather than its modifications.
“How can we encourage people to adopt a more plant-based diet?” asked a member of the audience.
For Adamkiewicz, this rhetoric is a matter of privilege, and mostly leaning on the consumer side of things and personal choices.
“One-third of the world land area is covered in a land type that is unsuitable for anything other than livestock production,” said Walsh, supporting mixed systems combining livestock and plant-based production.
For Harper, a plant-based protein would be a great solution. The only thing is to make it taste better. “In the far future, we’ll have cultivated meat, and we’ll modify cells to make leather — which we are making now — and meat.”
Regarding the projected 50-percent decrease in global seafood over the next 20 years due to the expansion of middle class in China and the expected global population growth, Harper talked about how we will be fish farming in the oceans, inside large, floating structures, and Adamkiewicz urged humanity to eat beyond salmon, shrimp and tuna.
Walsh took advantage of the discussion to inform the audience about the changes in the acidity and salinity of the oceanic food web due to climate change.
At the end of the event, Thomson asked the panelists to give us their last takeoff.
Adamkiewicz focused on the reality of climate change and the need to accept it and not disrupt the economy and the well-being of people.
Walsh said that climate change matters and that it matters to Americans because they live in a globally integrated food system.
Harper hoped that the next generation of farmers will not only be regular farmers but also mechanical engineer-farmers, electrical engineer-farmers, data farmers, and that an expansion of the definition of farming across all disciplines will take place.
Last but not least, Juma predicted that food security will become national security, a kind of national priority agenda the world over. “This will engage a lot more elephants in the room,” Juma said.