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19 October 2015

Pumpkin Madness Or Global Food Security Conference in a Harvest Setting

Arriving at this, the second Global Food Security Conference entailed a 7 hour drive from Boston to Ithaca, upstate New York.  Seven hours driving through a sea of pumpkins lined up along every highway and back road… 

The drive took me through three of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the Northeastern United States (they call them mountains, but they look like hills to me)  the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, and the Adirondacks and Catskills in northwestern New York state.  And of course, they are at the height of the fall foliage season, comfortingly colourful.

With that welcome, I settled into the routines of a very well organized and stimulating conference.  (OK, the coffee is appallingly weak, but that is not anything unusual in this part of the world.)

This large conference (667 participants from 61 countries) brought out the headliners on a first day plenary, which lasted all day and finished with an award ceremony and a piano concert.  Our setting is Cornell University which is arguably the Harvard of Ag schools and indeed its alumni have won the World Food Prize more than alumni from any other institution.

So, what are they saying, these famous laureates, Nestors and general glitterati of the aggie world?

First of all, we are all here to contribute to the process of eradicating hunger, as SDG 2 requires.  We know that any solutions must be bio-physically sustainable, but many speakers are talking about nurturing the entrepreneur, or agropreneur.

Over the past three decades we have seen our supply side orientation (we have to produce more food)change more and more to a demand side orientation (who is consuming?, what are they consuming? how can we increase their nutrition levels?).  This change in orientation is the result of increasing urbanization, energy demand and income growth all putting their respective pressure on agricultural production systems.  Predictive modeling of global food security has advanced from focusing only on theoretical food availability, to being nuanced with utilization (food waste) and access (income disparities and food sovereignty).

And while overall, there seems to be good progress made on reducing the level of hunger and extreme poverty by half (as espoused by the MDGs); escape from extreme poverty has primarily resulted in a transition from the category of “poor” to that of “low income”. The distribution of income is a major food security challenge now, as incomes have increased they have also become more unequal.

Nutrition transitions have not been as positive as income increases; while poverty is often characterized by hunger, or under-nutrition, low income food choices are often high in fat and sugars and, while increasing the overall level of caloric intake, often result in mal-nutrition.

In addition to problems with food access (or food sovereignty) there is also the problem of “hidden hunger” (the lack of micro-nutrients and proper nutrition even though calories may be sufficient). Hidden hunger affects 3 of the 7 billion currently living on the planet and there has been much discussion around the “bio-fortification” of different crops.

This is especially important now that the percentage of dietary calories coming from soybean, sunflower and palm oil is growing while orphan crops such as sweet potato, cassava, millet and sorghum are declining.  This process of high-calorie oils replacing fiber-rich carbohydrates is exacerbating malnutrition at the same time as caloric intake appears to be rising.

There is hope, however, that the search for solutions to the problems of climate change may reverse this process.  The “Lost Crops of Africa” are being reincarnated as climate smart nutri-crops.  Who knew?

The most recent IPCCC report presents empirical evidence, for the first time, that climate change is having an impact on agricultural yields.  Beans, for example, are on the way out in Africa.  Livestock and fish are not covered in the IPCCC report but are reporting significant declines.  Also not reported are the significant increases in pest problems which are moving towards the poles at a rate of 2.7 km per year.  We could see the day when malaria returns to Europe and the locust plagues that have characterized the Middle East and Africa become a problem much further northwards.

While the hidden hunger scenario characterizes developing country diets, consumers all over the world are at risk in terms of lacking sufficient information to make wise choices and are even being manipulated to make unhealthy food choices.

The development of supply chains and globalization of markets creates new challenges for food security. One speaker proposed that governments need to say to the food processing industry, “enough is enough!  Stop pushing consumers to “demand” the wrong foods”.  Public education, which is the method of choice by governments, is important but it cannot compete with the persuasive power of the large agri-businesses.  More strict regulation of food advertising was one solution put forth, and the use of business-tested persuasive methods by government agencies concerned with nutrition and consumer protection.

For a gathering of academics and scientists, the speakers at this conference (and here I include the non-presenters who were given many opportunities to have their say) touched surprisingly often on the policy and political aspects of their technical specialties. This is a promising development and one which SIANI promotes very strongly in every possible context.

One interesting suggestion in this regard was a call by scientists to revise the way they structure their research budgets, dividing them by thirds:  1/3 to identifying problems and needs, 1/3 to actually carrying out research and 1/3 to improving the capacity to receive or adopt the results of this research.

Conference Organization

There were so many parallel sessions that many of us have probably been to different conferences, except for the plenaries.  This is actually very efficient.  It is an excellent opportunity to break outside of one’s comfort zone and be enlightened by new approaches and analytical perspectives, all within the general field of food security.  For me, as an agricultural production economist, this meant a heavy dose of demand-driven subjects entailing that exotic creature for all of us aggies—THE CONSUMER!

We were already told in the plenary, that gone are the days when solving hunger = increasing production.  And many speakers were there to remind us that even when consumers don’t always make the right choices we cannot just turn it over to the market either.

Melinda Fones Sundell blog from the 2nd Global Food Security Conference in Cornell.

Would like to read more coverage from the event? Check out Melinda’s “Waste not, want not!” blog.