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.


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.

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