Food 2025 blog
QUEST Northern California, KQED’s award-winning multimedia science series, investigates genetically engineered crops in a half-hour documentary special, Next Meal: Engineering Food, on Wednesday, May 8, at 7:30pm on KQED 9. Next Meal explores how genetically engineered crops are made, their pros and cons, and what the future holds for research and regulations such as labeling in the wake of Proposition 37.
By Alec Rosenberg
Several themes emerged from the UC Global Food Systems Forum: Take a bottom-up approach. Focus on solutions. Pursue low-hanging fruit. Decrease food waste. Be practical. Be innovative. Involve education. But opinions differed on how to balance small- and large-scale farming, the role of genetically modified organisms, and what should be the most important area of focus.
More than 475 people attended the food forum in Ontario, Calif., which also reached a worldwide virtual audience. A live webcast received 1,500 unique viewers from 34 countries, while a steady stream of tweets at #Food2025 made the conversation a trending topic on Twitter. With more than 1 billion people going hungry every day and 1 billion people overweight, the conversation was timely.
"We must act now to improve the food and nutrition supply of people in poor countries and communities throughout the world," said keynote speaker Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and president of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice.
The daylong forum, part of ANR's statewide conference, addressed the challenges faced by food producers, suppliers and consumers in a world of growing population, strains on natural systems, climate change, shifting geopolitics and other converging forces. The event convened some of the world's leading experts — farmers, researchers, policymakers, economists, environmentalists and others — with the New Yorker's Michael Specter moderating a global panel and author and journalist Mark Arax moderating a California panel. The speakers offered thoughtful insights and solutions.
"This is fundamental to our mission as a land-grant university," said UC ANR Vice President Barbara Allen-Diaz. "Our goal is to take these brilliant ideas and turn them into brilliant plans of action."
By capturing water from rainfall and reducing evaporation, farmers could boost yields, said panelist Garrison Sposito, a UC Berkeley professor of ecosystem sciences and environmental engineering. Panelist Komal Ahmad, a 2012 UC Berkeley graduate, launched Feeding Forward, a startup that uses technology to streamline food donation, decreasing hunger while reducing waste. Panelist Howard-Yana Shapiro, who called for "uncommon collaborations," has increased the sustainability of cocoa at candy maker Mars Inc., where he is chief agricultural officer along with being a senior fellow at UC Davis.
What's the best way to feed the planet? Keynote speaker Wes Jackson, founder and president of the Land Institute, called for a focus on natural systems. Organic farmer Paul Muller, co-owner of Full Belly Farm, advocated for a Jeffersonian perspective of stewardship and self-reliance.
Meanwhile, Stuart Woolf, president and CEO of Woolf Farming and Processing, whose crops include almonds, pistachios and grapes, focuses on a larger scale. He noted that his farm supplies multinational corporations.
"We all serve different markets," Woolf said. "I think there's an opportunity for all of us to do well."
Issues of quantity and access
Increasing food productivity isn't enough, some speakers said.
"If you can't afford food, it doesn't really matter how much there is," said panelist Ron Herring, a Cornell University professor of government.
"We are trying to look for the silver bullet solutions instead of focusing on poverty," said panelist Anuradha Mittal, founder and executive director of the Oakland Institute.
A place to start is listening to the poorest people, speakers said.
"We need a Food Corps that's the equivalent of the Peace Corps," said panelist Sol Katz, a University of Pennsylvania professor of physical anthropology and an expert in health economics.
Panelist Maarten Chrispeels, a UC San Diego distinguished professor emeritus of biology, encouraged people to spend a month in a small village and learn about life there. Panelist Rebecca Peters, a UC Berkeley student, already has gotten a head start, spending three months in Bolivia as part of the Blum Center for Developing Economies. "We need to think about the perspective of the people we're trying to serve," Peters said.
Several speakers said universities and can play a key role in educating the public and conducting research. Farmers and other panelists pointed to the contributions UC has made to advance farm productivity and sustainability. Panelist Jonathan Shrier, acting special representative for global food security with the U.S. State Department, mentioned examples that included UC research to develop flood-tolerant rice.
"This type of conference is important because it gets everybody thinking out of the box," said panelist Grant Chaffin, a Blythe farmer.
James McWilliams, a historian at Texas State University, farmers' markets have grown from 400 in 1970 to over 4,000 in 2009. But can we feed the world on farmers' markets alone? Will they really lower our carbon footprint?
Glenda Humiston, California State Director of USDA Rural Development and panelist at the Global Food Systems Forum, said no.
"We can't feed the world with farmers' markets, and if we're going to try, then let's talk carbon footprint." Said Humiston, in last week's webcast.
According to a study conducted by researchers at Lincoln University in New Zealand, it is not always more energy-efficient for consumers to purchase locally-grown food. Often times, eating locally grown products consumes much more energy than eating imported goods.
Additionally, according to an article by the New York Times, "It is impossible for most of the world to feed itself a diverse and healthy diet through exclusively local food production — food will always have to travel; asking people to move to more fertile regions is sensible but alienating and unrealistic; consumers living in developed nations will, for better or worse, always demand choices beyond what the season has to offer."
What do you think? Can we feed the world solely on farmers' markets?
A lot actually. UC researchers are working with farmers across the state to find ways to reduce their impact.
For example, water. Water is one of the biggest concerns in California - both quantity and quality. The San Joaquin River is the second largest water supplier, but also one of the more impaired water bodies. UC researchers have started working with farmers to restore wetlands and using them as agriculture buffers. This natural protection mechanism is preventing nitrates from reaching the San Joaquin River, and has helped stabilized nitrate levels in our drinking water.
Bovine Bubbles are another great example. UC researchers are using bovine bubbles to study the amount of greenhouse gasses cows produce, and how to reduce it. In the process, they've discovered that cows produce 3.4% of greenhouse gas emissions in the US, contrary to a UN Food and Agriculture Organization report in 2006 that stated livestock contributes 18% of global emissions.
"There's no other country in the world that uses fewer animals to produce a given amount of food than what we do here," says Frank Mitloehner, UC Air Quality Extension Specialist.
For example, in California, one cow equals 20,000 lbs of milk. In Mexico, one cow equals 4,000 lbs of milk, and in India, only 500 lbs of milk.
"From now on, every 11 years we add another billion people to the world population. Within my lifetime, the human population has doubled. And here comes the big problem: the land that we use to feed all the people in the world...is a set amount and cannot be increased," says Mitloehner.
It all comes back to sustainability. Can California continue to lead in agricultural sustainability? Will we be able to continue to increase yields to feed our growing population, while protecting and preserving our natural resources?
Comment below, and sign up for next week's Global Food Systems Forum live webinar to join the conversation.