Image

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.

 Jon

Advertisements
Image

Retired schoolteacher Anne Mary Mabira, 85, with her backyard aquaponics system in Kampala, Uganda. In aquaponics, fish fertilize water for vegetables and vegetables filter water for fish. The technology has been gaining traction in the US, but is still virtually unknown in Africa. Photo: Jon Miller/Homelands Productions.

Keep your ears open for a new batch of What’s for Lunch radio stories about food and climate change on PRI’s The World. The series, part of the Food for 9 Billion project that Homelands Productions is producing with the Center for Investigative Reporting, airs Mondays and Thursdays through most of July.

Today, Homelands’ Jon Miller meets Charles Mulamata, a Ugandan engineer and entrepreneur who’s trying to spark a revolution in aquaponics, a super-efficient (but slightly intimidating) method for producing vegetables and fish in small spaces.

If you miss it on the air, you can find it online on The World’s What’s for Lunch series page.

Upcoming stories are from India, China, Costa Rica, the Netherlands and Seattle, and look at issues ranging from human waste recycling to meat alternatives to urban foraging. 

We’ve had a slew of stories broadcast since our last blog post. This past Monday, The World’s Mary Kay Magistad shared a meatless meal with Long Kuan, a Beijing-based pop singer who is promoting vegetarianism and veganism in meat-mad China. Last Thursday, independent producer Sam Eaton reported from Mexico on efforts to revive amaranth, a hardy and nutritious crop that once rivaled corn in importance. And last Monday, Jon Miller sent a dispatch from Qatar, where an international team of scientists is testing a suite of interlocking technologies to produce food, fresh water and energy in harsh desert areas.

You can catch Jon’s TV story about the Qatar project on the Food for 9 Billion website. While you’re there, you can watch the four other features we produced (from SingaporeIndiaCosta Rica and California) for PBS NewsHour on the week of June 10, and hear all the radio stories that have aired to date on The World, including reports on vertical farming in Singapore, China’s “clean your plate” campaign, industrial-scale low-carbon eating in Boston and the debate over GMOs in Uganda.

In fact, if you keep clicking the “next” button at the bottom of the page, you’ll find a trove of radio and TV stories, videos, blog posts and interactive features going back to November 2011.

 

Researcher

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 Foodfor9Billion.org, along with slideshows, interactive graphics and other goodies.

Image

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.