Television feature


In India, many farmers are returning to their traditional rice varieties, which often perform better than modern strains in salty soils. Meanwhile, scientists are working to incorporate salt tolerance into high-yielding varieties as stronger storms and rising seas increase the salinity of coastal fields. Photo by Sam Eaton.

One of the goals of the “Food for 9 Billion” project has been to show that keeping our growing number of selves fed (sustainably, equitably, healthily) is more than just a technical challenge.

That’s because food intersects with just about everything we humans do. It is social and cultural and political and economic. It’s about health and justice and demographics and taste. It ties us to our land and water and climate, and to the gazillions of other beings who share our planet.

And so we’ve produced stories about a wide range of non-technical topics, from land grabbing and trade policies to overconsumption and waste.

But the technical stuff matters, too. Certainly for better-off producers and consumers, for whom small changes can have enormous consequences. But especially, I think, for small-scale, low-income farmers in developing countries, where demand is growing the fastest, productivity is growing the slowest, undernourishment is the highest, and the strains on resources are most severely felt.

So we’ve done several pieces about technology, both high and low – agroecology, biodiversity conservation, reforestation, vertical farming, aquaponics, aquaculture, plant breeding, water harvesting, seed saving, GMOs and more.

Often, after these stories air, listeners or viewers write to tell us that we’re missing the point, that the real problem is ___________. The blank may be any number of things – population growth, poverty, lack of access to markets or land or credit or political power. No technology will help until we deal with that.

In a recent blog post in Grist, Tom Laskawy reports on efforts to get geeky tech types to turn their attention to improving the food system, then warns that it’s folly to expect technology to ensure “that adequate food is produced in a sustainable way for a growing population.” The piece carries the headline “When it comes to food, technology won’t save us.” 

Fine. But no single thing will, and it would be a shame for people to stop innovating because their particular insight or gadget or method isn’t going to save the world on its own.

I think the agroecologists have it right – the world is complex. Everything interacts with everything else. Conditions differ in important ways from place to place, and they change over time. No single technology will work everywhere. Scratch that: no single technology will work anywhere.

That’s not to say that “all of the above” is the best way forward – some technologies, like some policies or ideas, are inappropriate or dangerous or counterproductive. But it’s unlikely that “none of the above” is the answer, either.

And so we’re left with “lots of the above.” Better laws, better seeds, better education, better growing methods, better financial services, better roads, better data, better trade policies, better safety nets.

I never give a journalist grief for a headline (I rarely get to write mine), but maybe a better title for Laskawy’s piece (and, for that matter, for “Food for 9 Billion”) would be “When it comes to food, ________ won’t save us.”

But maybe many things will.



A Stanford University research technician erects a net on a Costa Rican coffee farm. The team has identified more than 100 species of birds on farms and associated patches of forest as part of a project to calculate the value of biodiversity. Photo: Sam Eaton/Homelands Productions.

It’s the biggest week yet for the “Food for 9 Billion” project, with five stories scheduled to air on PBS NewsHour and two on PRI’s The World.

Today on the NewsHour, Sam Eaton visits Costa Rica, where farmers and researchers are finding that biodiversity isn’t just good for the environment, but also boosts productivity and profits. Also today, on The World, Mary Kay Magistad eats a meal with the organizers of a grassroots campaign to cut down on food waste in China, where leaving food on your plate is a sign that you’ve made it.

Tuesday on the NewsHour, Jon Miller travels to Qatar to visit a high-tech experiment in transforming sunlight, seawater and carbon dioxide into food, fuel and fresh water. On Wednesday, also on the NewsHour, Sam reports on an ultra-efficient vertical vegetable farm in Singapore.

On Thursday, Jon reports for The World from Uganda, where scientists and activists have staked out very different positions on genetically engineered virus-resistant cassava. Also on Thursday, on the NewsHour, Sam visits farmers in India who are returning to their traditional seeds to protect themselves against the ravages of climate change.

Finally, on the NewsHour on Friday, Serene Fang and Susanne Rust of the Center for Investigative Reporting look at California’s resource-hungry dairy industry, which is turning to China as domestic markets dry up.

As always, if you can’t catch the stories on the day of broadcast, they will all be archived at, along with slideshows, interactive graphics and other goodies.

Jack Ng at SkyGreens in Singapore

Engineer-entrepreneur Jack Ng shows off a water-powered system he designed for his vertical farm, called SkyGreens, in Singapore. The plants are grown in composted food waste. Around the world, farmers are finding ways to produce food using less land, water and fossil fuel. Photo by Sam Eaton/Homelands Productions.

For the last year and a half, the “Food for 9 Billion” project has examined the many-sided challenge of keeping ourselves fed at a time of rapid social and environmental change. Yesterday we launched a new chapter, called “What’s for Lunch,” a series of features on PRI’s The World and PBS NewsHour that look at the connections between what we eat and our changing climate.

In our first piece, producer Sam Eaton visits SkyGreens, a super-efficient vertical farm in the heart of Singapore. A companion piece will air next week on the NewsHour. For a taste of what else is coming, check out this blog post from The World’s environment editor, Peter Thomson.

We’re using the hashtag #Whats4Lunch on Twitter and Instagram. If you’re an Instgrammer, you can upload a photo of your climate-changed lunch along with an explanation of how it’s different.


The Sahara Forest Project facility in Qatar uses seawater and sunlight to produce vegetables, energy, fresh water, desert plants, animal feed and salt. Photo by Elsa Naumann/Sahara Forest Project.

Reporters Jonathan MillerSam Eaton and Mary Kay Magistad have been in Mexico, Costa Rica, India, Singapore, China, Qatar, Uganda and the Netherlands gathering tape for a series of radio and TV stories about the future of food in a climate-changed world. Topics will include alternatives to meat, alternative staples, GMOs, traditional seeds, foraging, vertical farming, agroecology, aquaponics, aquaculture, carbon-neutral farming and agrobiodiversity. Oh, and low-carbon cafeteria meals.

The series, part of the “Food for 9 Billion” project, will air on PRI’s The World and PBS NewsHour beginning in June. For updates, follow the project  (and look for the #Foodfor9Billion hashtag) on Twitter.

We wanted to catch you up on the “Food for 9 Billion” project, which has been taking most of our attention lately. As loyal readers will know, Ff9B asks what has to happen for the world to be able to feed itself sustainably and equitably over the next three decades. It’s a collaboration among Homelands Productions, the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), American Public Media’s Marketplace and PBS NewsHour.

So far we’ve produced nine radio features, six video features and three features especially for the web. Our reporting has taken us to Mexico, Egypt, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Brazil, India, Ghana, Japan, Niger and Vietnam. Upcoming stories are from Senegal, China, Lesotho, Zambia, Greece, Brazil and the United States.

“Food for 9 Billion” doesn’t aim to be comprehensive, but we have tried to be more or less systematic in our choice of stories. Topics include the role of science, the politics of famine and food prices, population growth and family planning, climate change, land transfers, rural development, the right to food, water scarcity, soil fertility, aging farmers, desertification and fish farming. Stories in the pipeline will look at waste, the spread of supermarkets, meat consumption, obesity, pesticide use and energy. We’re also working on a full-length television documentary, and on educational materials for high school students.

We’re particularly proud of the web features – an interactive world food map and world food timeline (both produced in partnership with the Transnational Learning group at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences) and, most recently, an animated video about the impact of excessive beef consumption on the environment and human health. If you like ’em, please share ’em!

You can listen to the radio stories, watch the TV stories, and fiddle around with the web features at the project’s home page on the CIR website. And if that’s not enough links for you, please also check out the “Food for 9 Billion” blog and follow the project on Twitter.

The latest “Food for 9 Billion” feature, on the connection between farmland investment and displacement in Ethiopia, airs tonight on PBS NewsHour. It was produced and reported by Cassandra Herrman and Beth Hoffman and edited by Cassandra and David Ritsher at the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The Saudi-owned company Saudi Star plans to create Africa’s largest rice farm in Ethiopia and export the rice to the Middle East. Photo: Dallas McNamara

In recent months, both Human Rights Watch and the Oakland Institute have released reports critical of the Ethiopian government’s “villagization” program, which moves isolated farm families into permanent settlements.

The Human Rights Watch report documents the removal of tens of thousands of members of the minority Anuak tribe from their farms in the Gambella region. It includes satellite maps showing patterns of displacement.

The Oakland Institute’s investigations look at various land deals in Ethiopia and their impact on local populations.

Both organizations have questioned whether donor money is facilitating the forced relocation of Ethiopian farmers. Ethiopia receives more than $1 billion a year in US aid. The Ethiopian government denies that the villagization program is connected to its policy of leasing prime farmland to foreign corporations.

It was great to see National Catholic Reporter blogger Jamie Manson‘s thoughtful response to Sam Eaton’s PBS NewsHour story about food and family planning in the Philippines. It’s worth taking a look at the comments, too, full of passion and information.

Like the Manson essay, many of the comments on Sam’s radio piece on the Marketplace website focus on the role of the Catholic church in blocking access to free or low-cost contraceptives. Which makes sense, since the Church is clearly the main impediment to publicly funded family planning services in the Philippines. But Church opposition is not the only thing keeping poor people in the Philippines from limiting the size of their families, nor is it the main cause for stubbornly high population growth in poor countries worldwide.

Poverty, insecurity, lack of education (especially for girls), gender inequality, lack of social safety nets, inadequate public health systems, and a host of other factors conspire to keep parents from stopping at the “replacement level” of two kids (actually 2.1 or 2.3, depending on the place). At the same time, improvements in sanitation, medicine, and nutrition have allowed more children to survive to child-bearing age. There’s a lag time as the birth rate adjusts to the death rate, and that imbalance leads to some pretty serious growth. If you want to see how radically different the last 50 years have been from the rest of human history, take a look at the little graph on any of the population entries on the “Food for 9 Billion” project’s World Food Timeline.

It’s interesting to look at the role of food in all this. We often hear how the dramatic increase in food production since the 1960s has allowed the world to stay a step ahead of mass starvation. The late Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Prize-winning wheat breeder and father of the Green Revolution, is widely credited with saving more lives than anyone in human history. But some people argue that the surge in agricultural output has actually contributed to the surge in population, in line with the basic ecological principle that the population of any species will rise to meet the food supply. The argument only goes so far, as the most food-secure countries tend to be the ones with the lowest birth rates. But certainly starvation and malnutrition take fewer lives today than they did 50 years ago, and that translates into many more mouths to feed.

We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that world population growth has been slowing impressively in the last decade or two, and not just because people in wealthy countries have stopped reproducing. According to the UN and other bodies, the global population should level off by about 2100. Unfortunately, this has led many of us to think that “the population problem” will take care of itself. But the projections are very inexact, and the markedly different birth rates in different countries show that public policy can be every bit as important as parents’ “natural” inclination to have fewer children as their living standards improve.

As Sam Eaton reported, one more child per family today can mean billions more people 100 years from now. As it is, the global population is growing by about 200,000 per day. Anything that can be done to reduce that number is likely to bring major benefits to children, families, nations, and the planet. And given the way the math works, the sooner we act, the better.

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