Opinion: Let’s talk about food

POSTED: 10/9/12 1:03 PM

Some people think about food all day long. I remember a colleague who would walk into the office at ten in the morning complaining about what he called hunger pains – and he certainly did not look like an underfed puppy. In another category of people thoughts about food focus not on quantity but on quality. The yearning for responsibly produced food (no genetically modified stuff, no products blown up with agricultural steroids) among these consumers is becoming louder and louder – and for good reason. After all, you are what you eat.
Louise Fresco is an authority on food. With an education from the University of Wageningen, Fresco served in high functions at the UN agricultural organization FAO; since 2006 she is a professor at the University of Amsterdam.
People talk a lot about food, Fresco says, but without having a lot of knowledge about the topic. The traditional baker is not going to feed the world, she warns, and that sounds already like a professorial sneer in the direction of people with a strong preference for organic products.
The world seems to buckle under the drive for food, Fresco wrote in an op-ed in the Volkskrant. Rain forests are cut down for soy, live stock is one of the most important causes of global warming, monoculture threatens biodiversity and the question is how all those young people in India and China will be fed once they all go to McDonald’s.
But Fresco says there is no reason to panic. The earth is capable of producing enough to feed everybody. Agriculture is a success story, she writes in her book Hamburgers in Paradise that was released last week Friday.
Hunger is the result of failed policies and poverty. Modern agriculture has brought many blessings: more people are better fed than ever before. Agriculture has made the largest growth in the world population possible. The majority of the population is exempt from the daily concerns about food and is able to do other things. “Whichever way you look at it, that is quite a victory,” Fresco says.
She maintains that the system has space to feed a couple of billion extra mouths. “In the next couple of years we have to produce incredibly much more food. But we are able to do it. Unless there is a world war or a gigantic epidemic I do not foresee large problems in our food supply,” the professor says.
What about meat production? In the next forty years the demand for meat will double, while at the moment already two-third of agricultural land is used for meat production. We’ll need one-and-a-half earth to meet that demand.
“That is the wrong way of looking at it,” Fresco told the Volkskrant. “A lot of land on earth is not suited for agriculture. Think about the pampas in Argentina, the steppe in Mongolia. The cows over there are converting grass that is indigestible for us into high quality food. There is no other and no better way to do that. Chicken and pigs are on low production levels in many parts of the world as well. There is still a lot to be gained with improved feeding systems and efficiency.”
Fresco says that the productivity of a corn field in Chine is 40 percent higher than in India. And in china the productivity is 40 percent lower than in Europe. “I am not talking about genetic modification,” Fresco says, ‘but about improving current techniques.”
The problem with doomsday scenarios, Fresco says, is that they are based on business as usual. “Predicting the future in a linear way from the current situation is impossible. In 1894 the times predicted that in 1950 the streets of London would be covered with three meters of horse manure. Nobody could know that there was another solution possible – the car. If you look back fifty years now, you’ll miss the whole internet’-revolution.”
Fresco says that the relevance of biodiversity is overrated. “There is no direct relationship between biodiversity and food-security. The fact that we are depending for our food on just thirty crops does not make our food less safe.”
Dying bees is another misunderstood topic, Fresco says. “Doom thinkers refer to it as a symbol for the downfall of our food-system. They suggest that without bees there is no more fertilization. That is incorrect. Most food crops do not depend on bees. Pollination could be a problem for horticulture, but not for our basic calories. If you are talking about food security you cannot say that not pollinating an apple tree affects that.”
The Volkskrant sensed that Fresco is a proponent of intensifying agriculture. Fresco: “In the Netherlands we are giving land back to nature. Drenthe used to be an agricultural province, now it is all nature. That has been made possible by the intensive agriculture that made that we needed less land to produce pour food. Apart from that I think that the Netherlands has reached the limits of intensifying agriculture.”
Fresco does not think that organic is a guarantee for sustainable. “No matter how sympathetic the thought is: if we want to grow all our food organically, we need a lot more land. Not a little bit, but approximately six times as much.”
Fresco balks at the suggestion by the Volkskrant that she considers proponents of organic food as spoiled westerners.
“I do not mean it that hard. I find that those movements deserve credit because they have put food back on the agenda. What I say is that they do not offer a solution for the world food problem. It is an illusion to think that we are able to feed the Netherlands with food from the neighborhood. Globalization is a fact if you want to eat the way we do now. The traditional baker is not going to feed the world. Movements like slowfood and organic are an avant-garde, but they do not offer a realistic alternative. The real change will have to come from the mainstream food production.”

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