What will ultimately promote health and prevent hunger?
BY COLE WILHELMI
The World Food Prize international symposium might be the largest scientific conference that you’ve never heard of. Each October, hundreds of top government officials, food scientists, policymakers, and social justice workers convene in Des Moines, Iowa, with the stated mission of “advancing human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world.” The symposium is capped with the annual award ceremony, where the World Food Prize is presented to an individual who has made remarkable strides in the fight against world hunger. It’s often regarded as the Nobel Prize of food security (although with a much smaller fraction of press coverage). If anything, however, the world needs to spend more time listening to what comes out of this conference. Chances are, the opinions generated by the symposium might be radically different from your own impressions on food security, and they will undoubtedly have a major impact on guiding food policy decisions worldwide.
So why are the ideas of the conference so important, and how do they stack up against the beliefs on food security commonly held by the American public and students at UNC? One of the key principles agreed upon at the conference (and overlooked by much of the public) is that solving world hunger is a complex and vastly multidimensional issue. The going mentality in many public institutions is that a certain problem is best solved by compartmentalizing it in a specific “silo”–a system of thinking that minimizes collaboration, resource-sharing, and interdisciplinary solutions. We see silo management at work at UNC and many other universities: the department of chemistry does chemistry, the department of computer science does computer science, the department of economics does economics, and so on. UNC has improved on its interdisciplinary course offerings in recent years, but they are still rather uncommon. Most collaboration occurs among fields that show obvious similarities: biology and chemistry for example, or mathematics and physics. The biggest divide exists between the hard sciences and the humanities–very rarely will you encounter a class or department that works between the two. However, the dialogue at the World Food Prize demonstrated that this type of interdepartmental cooperation is absolutely critical to winning the fight against world hunger. Food security lies at the crux of public policy, economics, and science: idea sharing is the only way that the global food security movement will succeed. The objective of the conference wasn’t just to gather all the leading experts on food security, but also to recognize how incredibly diverse the expertise is. Dr. Amit Roy, President of the International Fertilizer Development Center in India, sums it nicely: “One intervention area won’t be enough to end hunger. Achieving sustainable food security depends on holistic solutions… Going forward, it is vital to have partnership: between the farmer, the research institution, the policymaker and others.”
The conference spent a good deal of time covering the use of technology and how to best integrate it into food security solutions. Here is where I think the views held by the attendees of the World Food Prize and the opinions of college students most differ. Certain technologies deemed critical at the conference are non-contentious and infrequently discussed outside the field: developing precision farming methods and using computers and big-data to make farming more efficient, for instance, will be key over the next fifty years. But most people choose to devote their attentions to the more controversial tools- the most (in)famous of which is the GMO. The use of genetic modification in crops is bitterly debated on the news and on college campuses, but the consensus among most environmental groups is that GMOs are anathema to sustainability and healthy food production. Keynote speakers and panelists at the World Food Prize conference were, surprisingly, mostly pro-GMO. They made an important distinction between GMO, the technology, and GMO, the agricultural system that most people don’t understand. They recognize that GMO the technology is just that: a technology, a tool that should be used with many others to solve hunger problems in a diverse set of situations. When used appropriately, this can be a tremendous boon to global food supplies. In fact, the 2014 World Food Prize winner, Dr. Sanjaya Rajaram, focused his research on selective wheat breeding, ultimately creating over 480 wheat varieties adapted to grow in a huge array of climates and environmental conditions. His work boosted wheat production by over 200 million tons in 51 different countries.
However, most of us only hear about GMO the agricultural system. The one associated with large crop monoculturing, environmental destruction, big agribusiness, nutritional deficiencies, over-fertilization and pesticide use…or basically, the US system of agriculture. When Americans hear “GMO”, they automatically associate the technology with the negative effects of the system, when in reality, the two are not necessarily linked. As Mark Lynas, author and environmental activist, said in panel discussion, “We can have GMOs produced in the public sector, without patents, which are offered free of charge to smallholder farmers.” When used correctly, GMOs can be adapted like any other scientific development. The same principle goes for fertilizer and pesticides–well-regulated use must happen to revitalize agriculture in struggling regions in the developing world. Leaders at the symposium dubbed this concept “sustainable intensification”- acknowledging the need for technology in agrisystems without abusing it.
Many of UNC’s student organizations related to food development and sustainability share a similar profile: UNC Sprout, FLO (Fair, Local, Organic), and the Sonder Market, an organic food stand that just recently debuted on campus, all favor organic crop production over conventional. Does this mean that they wrongly reject the idea of “sustainable intensification?” Not necessarily. The principle behind sustainable intensification is to embrace technology where it’s most needed. And it’s clear that in the United States, conventional food technologies have been overused at the cost of consumer and environmental health. So it’s also a matter of recognizing differences in priorities across regions: in developing nations, food production and boosting yield are most important, while in food rich countries like the US, nutrition and environmental health have become top concern. So far, organizations at UNC have done a good job of promoting more sustainable agriculture in North Carolina, and finally giving students on campus some healthier eating options. One must only remember that “local and organic” is not always superior to conscious conventional farming, nor is it always feasible in developing countries facing shortages.