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Feeding The World — But Doing It Sustainably

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When you have nearly 300 agricultural journalists representing 31 countries gathered together for a conference, it s only fitting that discussion would turn to the feed the world debate.

While it s arguably one of the biggest issues facing global agriculture today, the challenge put to participants in the recent International Federation of Agricultural Journalists meeting in Niagara Falls was to move beyond the doomsday scenario and zero in on what can be done to avert it.

In case you hadn t noticed, reporters are extraordinarily adept at telling us all that s going wrong with the world. We are much less capable of giving voice to the people, programs and policies that are working.

Take for example, the conclusions of a recently released United Kingdom report on the world s ability to feed its growing population with diminishing resources.

The Foresight projectGlobal Food and Farming Futures,undertaken by the U.K. government, consulted with 400 leading experts and stakeholders from 35 countries in an effort to highlight the decisions policy-makers must start making today to fairly and sustainably feed a world population of nine billion by 2050.

The project looked at five key areas: balancing future supply and demand sustainably, food price stability, ensuring fair access to food, managing the food system s impact on climate, and maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem health.

In a nutshell, its chief finding was that we re failing rather miserably. It s apparent the system is not coping particularly well with these pressures, says James Muir, a retired Scottish professor who served as the project s lead expert adviser. We are at the point where we have to make some difficult decisions.

Yet Muir said the message emerging from the process is strangely one of hope. This is a good time for action, he said. We are generally capable of using our knowledge effectively to make change.

Is it all about spin? You bet.

But if average everyday people don t believe we can turn this ship around and if they believe the problem is too big for individuals to have any impact, the necessary changes won t happen.

Genetics aren t everything

Those of us who live and breathe agriculture are fully aware of the role technology and in particular, genetics, will continue to play in increasing productivity. But most of us are also aware in varying degrees that feeding the world in 2050 can t be accomplished by solely focusing on yield. There are also issues of environmental decline, equitable access, waste reduction and trade policy, to name a few.

Yet the feed the world discussion has largely been dominated by the production challenge. The private-sector research and development companies are sometimes criticized for stealing the agenda, but to their credit, they are at least doing something about their part of the solution.

The rest of us, from international governments right on down to individual consumers who throw out upwards of 50 per cent of their food purchases, have exercised a large measure of inertia perhaps even denial of our role in finding solutions.

Politicians are happy to talk about the production challenge, which is something for someone else to address. They are much less vocal about the availability challenge, which is a broader discussion and one that puts the food file back on their desk.

Research and the soil

Speakers at the IFAJ conference were asked to flesh out some of the issues of food availability and sustainability that don t get as much coverage and offer some insights into the media s role in this equation.

A radical redesign of the global food system is required, Muir said.

At the core of this is a need to end across-the-board budget cuts that are responsible for reducing investments in publicly funded research to between one and 1.5 per cent of GDP from historical levels of three to five per cent, he said.

Also critical is developing a can-do culture that empowers individuals to take action and make changes in everyday ways, rather than portraying the issues as being so large and insurmountable that they tower above our capacity to act.

Soil scientist Jill Clapperton appealed to delegates to find and tell the stories of farmers who are incorporating sustainable agriculture into their business plans so other farmers can learn from their example. That was echoed by Kevin Perkins, executive director of Farm Radio International, who noted the media is the means by which good ideas can become widespread practices.

And a focus on nutrition must supercede the drive for more calories, said Clapperton. Are we just producing a whole bunch of calories versus are we producing food that is good for us?

Feeding the world sustainably is a surmountable problem. But it s a choice we all have to make.

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Weareatthepoint wherewehavetomake somedifficultdecisions.

JAMES MUIR

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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