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A Synopsis of Feeding the Planet

by Sara Glass [1]


On October 30th, George Washington University hosted Feeding the Planet Summit: Sustainable Innovations in Food Security [2] , a project launched by GW Planet Forward [3], which brought together celebrity chefs, industry leaders, government agencies, activist groups, non-profit organizations, entrepreneurs and students from across the nation.  The goal of the event was to engage a wide variety of stakeholders in civil dialogue about feeding the world’s growing population.


Chris Policinski, president and CEO of Land O’Lakes, Inc., opened the meeting with a brief overview of the challenges facing food security by mentioning efforts are underway  in ‘silos’, but what is needed is more collaboration to reach the goal of feeding the world.


A presentation with vivid photos was given by Dennis Dimick, of National Geographic, to draw attention to some of the dilemmas facing the future of agriculture.  The dependence of fossil energy for production, meat based diets, and the role of climate change were some highlights.  He concluded with pictures of the faces of farmers from around the world, and stated that amongst all the things needed to feed the future perhaps we need to grow more farmers too.  These images personified the wide diversity of farms and farmers that supply our food.  Be on the lookout in the coming year for National Geographic‘s series on “Our Food Future” to run from May to December 2014.


Margaret Walsh, a senior ecologist from the Climate Change Program Office of the USDA, stressed the importance of factoring the affects of climate change for achieving food security.  Increasing temperatures, precipitation changes and extreme weather events all have effects on production which in turn affects the four pillars of food security: access, availability, utilization and stability.  The USAID administrator, Rajiv Shah, identified key innovations for agriculture that can help transform the faces of hunger and poverty.  These included the orange flesh sweet potato [4], drought-tolerant maize, Fertilizer Deep Placement (FDP) technology, and cell phones.


In a panel discussion Shenggen Fan [5], from the International Food Policy Research Institute, stressed the importance of innovations not only in technology, but also in policy.  He brought attention to the need for policies to consider a multitude of factors including human health, farmer livelihoods and the environment.  For instance how implementing specific rice varieties may decrease water use, increase access to macronutrients and increase yield.


Celebrity chef and restaurateur José Andrés mentioned some philosophical debates such as the trade-offs between increased meat consumption and the environment, and how to deal with the millions of people rising out of poverty and consuming more animal proteins; while those of us in the West are becoming aware of the benefits of eating less meat.  Can we really say:  “Sorry, I know you have enough money now to buy a delicious steak but here have some vegetables. That is what we are doing.”


With many debates about GMOs in the media today, it is not surprising that a panel was held to discuss this heavily emotional topic.  Two recent New York Times articles, “A Race to Save the Orange by Altering its DNA [6]” and “Golden Rice: Lifesaver?” [7], were highlighted to uncover the positives and negatives of the technology.  In a short discussion the tensions bubbled to the surface, much of which has been heard before.  One view is that biotechnology is taking up too much space in the conversation and attention is needed on agroecological approaches which are viable and robust options.  Yet another opinion voices the need to integrate technologies with all forms of knowledge and use the tools judiciously.  Are we willing to live without orange juice?  Can we take away the potential of children to obtain sources of micronutrients? The audience has been left to decide on how to navigate through the sea of complicated questions.


The day concluded with young scholars and entrepreneurs showcasing their innovations for food production.  Ideas presented included edible insects [8], mobile phone technology [9], 3D printed food [10] and fuel briquettes [11] all of which range in the use of technologies and ways to benefit food security.  While some in the audience crunched away on teriyaki flavored crickets we all were reminded that it takes a plethora of solutions and compromises to truly achieve global food security.


Sara Glass [12], is a senior research program coordinator for the Global Food Ethics Project [13] at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.  She is a Registered Dietitian and is interested in global  food security, policy, and ethics.


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