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Harvard Hosts Forum on Feeding the Planet During Climate Change

A forum at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health discussed ways to sustain at-risk food resources made vulnerable from climate change, and the impacts for populations in developing countries.

Dec. 19, 2016
By Stav Dimitropoulos

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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“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.

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“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.