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.


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 Homelands blog may have been idle, but that doesn’t mean we have been! Clearly, though, it’s time for a quick catching up.

School snack bar in Crete

Many schools in Crete have voluntarily banned soft drinks and sweets from their snack bars. The percentage of overweight children in Greece is higher than in the US. Photo by Jon Miller.

In October, Jon Miller’s feature Greece’s diet crisis aired on Marketplace as part of the “Food for 9 Billion” project. The story looked at the rapid rise of obesity in Crete, home to one of the world’s healthiest traditional diets. In November, Mary Kay Magistad (China correspondent for our new radio partner, PRI’s The World; more about that below) joined forces with Cassandra Herrman and Serene Fang at the Center for Investigative Reporting on China strains to satisfy growing demand for meat, which aired on PBS NewsHour.

Then, just before the holidays in December, Jon’s piece Taking the climate fight to the table aired on Marketplace. That story, which looked at how our own eating decisions might affect the world’s ability to feed itself, wrapped up our fruitful and enjoyable year-long partnership with Marketplace (a shout-out to our excellent editors Ben Adair, George Judson and Sitara Nieves). 

For the last few months we’ve been laying the groundwork for a second phase of Ff9B — a series of ten or more stories for The World, to air in a two- or three-week burst this spring. The topic is much more focused than what we’ve done so far; we sometimes describe it as “the future of food in a climate-changed world.” Jon Miller and Sam Eaton will do most of the reporting; as we write this, they’re madly preparing for trips to Singapore, India, Mexico, Costa Rica, Uganda, The Netherlands and Qatar. We also expect to continue working with CIR on a handful of companion pieces for PBS NewsHour.

Group photo

Homelands producers Alan Weisman, Sandy Tolan, Jonathan Miller, Cecilia Vaisman and Beckie Kravetz (Alan’s wife) in Los Angeles in January.

Finally, in January, Sandy, Cecilia, Alan and Jon descended on Sandy’s place in Los Angeles for a weekend retreat. We are spread around the country (western Massachusetts, upstate New York, Chicago, LA) and rarely find ourselves together in the same place. It was wonderful to talk and plan and recharge each other’s creative batteries. A highlight was a party on Saturday night for a few dozen radio friends in LA. Being radio people, nobody thought to take any pictures.

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.

Americans love burgers. They’re filling, tasty and cheap. But what we pay at the counter is only part of the story. Check out this animated video from the “Food for 9 Billion” project, a collaboration between Homelands Productions and the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). CIR’s Carrie Ching directed and produced; art and animation is by Arthur Jones.

The video launched with the new I Files investigative video channel on YouTube, which is programmed by CIR. You can find a fully annotated version here.

Congratulations to our friends at the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), who just announced their merger with the Bay Citizen. According to CIR, the merger “will create the largest nonprofit organization in the country focused on watchdog and accountability journalism.” You can read about the merger on the CIR blog and on the Bay Citizen site.

CIR is one of our partners on the “Food for 9 Billion” project. Last month the organization won a MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.

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.