Letter from Des Moines 2: A World Food Prize Postmortem

Speaking on the final day of the World Food Prize dialogue, from left, Brian Halweil, J.B. Penn, Hans Herren and Marco Ferroni

Speaking on the final day of the World Food Prize dialogue, from left, Brian Halweil, J.B. Penn, Hans Herren and Marco Ferroni

Last week, I had the good fortune to participate in a discussion on the final day of the World Food Prize dialogue held in Des Moines, Iowa. The night before the panel, at an award ceremony held at the State Capitol, guests were treated to comments from the governor of Iowa, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture (who read a letter from President Obama), and a violin performance by the current Miss Iowa (who also did agricultural research as part of the World Food Prize’s Youth Institute), not to mention an impressive locavore-menu of Iowa beef, Maytag blue cheese, and local pumpkin cheesecake. The moderator Joachim von Braun told me that he hoped our panel could suggest what had been missed in the several days of discussions on world hunger that included keynotes from Bill Gates, Columbia Earth Institute economist Jeffrey Sachs, and the eloquent CEO of PepsiCo.

(Side note: As a first-time attendee at the event, it was hard not to be distracted by the presence of corporate sponsors, mostly from the food and agriculture industry. It’s not surprising, perhaps, for an event born in the U.S. heartland and closely allied with U.S. agricultural universities. The other memorable meal was a luncheon sponsored by the American Soybean Association that included many creative uses of this popular oilseed. I suppose this corporate presence also means that speakers can take these folks to task, as Bill Gates did, encouraging agribusiness to buy more directly from small farmers. Jeffrey Sachs did the same when he took the biotech industry to task for making enemies, and the ethanol industry for pulling off the amazing feat of wasting the world’s energy supply and food all at the same time.)

Hans Herren kicked off the final panel discussion with a one-sentence summary of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science & Technology (IAASTD) report that he chaired: “Business as usual will not do.” Herren, now president of the Millennium Institute, received the World Food Prize in 1995 for developing particularly elegant (and chemical-free) controls for two of the most serious pests of cassava, averting what could have been  Africa’s worst-ever food crisis. The IAASTD report suggested, among other things, that the world needs to pursue ecological farming approaches on all fronts and that neglected breeds of livestock and crops hold untapped potential in poor and hungry settings.

The notion was quickly dittoed by Marco Ferroni, Executive Director of the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, who spoke eloquently about crop insurance systems his group is developing to help smallholder farmers cope with uncertainty from the global climate and from global food markets. J.B. Penn, Chief Economist for Deere & Co., the farm machinery manufacturer, suggested that high and erratic crop prices in recent years were particularly destabilizing for both local and world markets, and that after a long lull in international interest in agriculture, governments, agribusiness, and farmers seemed interested in investing in the long term.

Since the panel was asked whether the world was using the right measures of agricultural success, I began my presentation by poking fun at one measure we at Worldwatch have tracked assiduously for several decades—global grain production—as if it was some magic number that told us how the world was faring in feeding itself. Grains do constitute about half of the calories humans eat, as well as the bulk of what we feed to livestock. And trends in grain production over the long term roughly track trends in the production of other major crops.

But the global aggregate misses wide regional differences in grain production. And it neglects the fact that people cannot live on grain alone. It skews investment in agricultural development as well as crop breeding. More importantly, the global grain harvest could be increasing and the number of hungry on the planet could even be declining in the short term, but we could still be over-mining our soils, tapping our freshwater, and otherwise undermining our long-term potential to eat.

I suggested that instead of focusing on any one particular measure—whether it is the number of hungry (which is increasing), the improvement in crop yields (which is stagnating), or investment in global agricultural research (increasing after a long decline)—we should ask whether we are building agriculture’s capacity to deal with future threats. Are we investing in soils, as a hedge against a slowdown of improvements in crop breeding? Are we building resilience to water scarcity? Are we building up our immunity to emerging crop and livestock diseases? (The symposium organizers held, for the first time, a panel on why the intelligence community is concerned about the global food supply.)

Since we will never be able to anticipate all the challenges, I suggested that the best strategy was building our food system’s ability to deal with challenges of any sort. That is, to build diversity into every level of the food chain—from the mixes of crops we grow, to the mix of different cropping systems (from trees to livestock to fish ponds) in our agricultural landscape, to the sorts of products farmers sell and the sorts of businesses they sell to. (I borrowed some of my thinking from an earlier discussion with Cary Fowler of the Global Seed Trust on “climate-ready” crops.)

Ultimately, this diversity works best when it exists “across the value chain,” a concept I think I first heard from Fred Kirshenmann of Iowa State’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, but which Bill Gates expressed in Des Moines.

With this in mind, the panel discussion turned to what decision-makers, researchers, funding organizations, and farmers should be investing in in the future, since the audience included staff from many major foundations, dozens of ministers of agriculture from around the world, and officials from the World Bank, USAID, and other international agencies. (Stay tuned for the second half of this blog post tomorrow.)

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