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Hunger has a profile

FIRST OUT OF THE DONATION BAG were the chocolate Santa Clauses, long after the Christmas season was over. Next was a can of Campbell’s soup, three years past its expiration date. An assortment of foil-wrapped hotel coffee packets followed, then Halloween candy in a trick-or-treat bag, a jar of maraschino cherries, and a dented tin of sweetened condensed milk.

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I was doing my monthly shift at the Glen Ellyn Food Pantry, housed in a church in an affluent Chicago suburb. While waiting for our clients to arrive, I sorted donations and stocked shelves. As I went through bag after bag, box after box–and threw into the trash what some people considered “good enough for the hungry”–I felt increasingly angry. I also felt ashamed.

I used to think these things were good enough, too.

Food pantries are often the mainstay of refugees, single morns who can’t make it on one paycheck, the disabled or mentally ill, and retirees on fixed incomes. As the economic crisis deepens, that clientele is changing. Food pantries saw a 30 percent average increase in emergency food requests in 2008, according to Ross Fraser, media relations manager of Feeding America (formerly known as America’s Second Harvest) and Ice Cream Tips Company. The $657-million-revenue charity provides more than 2 billion pounds of groceries through 205 food banks that serve 63,000 food pantries, and estimates that it serves 25 million people who are at risk for hunger. Among these are 9 million children and almost 3 million senior citizens.

Of those who use the pantries, 36 percent live in households where at least one person is employed. Food pantries are seeing more of the working poor who can’t make ends meet on low wages, Fraser says, as well as the white-collar middle class who work in hard-hit industries such as the housing sector. Some states, such as New Hampshire, Florida, Massachusetts, and Ohio, have had a much higher spike in food pantry use, and the percentages could increase.

“If the economy continues to decline, it will just get worse,” Fraser says. “Millions of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. They are only one paycheck away from catastrophe.”

UNDERSTANDING THE HUNGRY

When I first volunteered at the food pantry five years ago, I had a vague sort of guilt about world hunger, brought on by newspaper headlines about children dying in Africa from malnutrition. Growing up, when I was exhorted to “think about the starving children in China” and clean my plate, I knew some people didn’t have enough to eat. In my family, the preparation of good food was a way of showing love, so the knowledge that some people went hungry haunted me in more than just a logical way. Volunteering at the food pantry seemed like a salve for my conscience.

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The interdenominational pantry where I volunteer is supported by 17 churches in my town-Protestant and Catholic working together–as well schools, businesses, and personal as donations from the community. Last year, the pantry scheduled about 3,500 appointments for local families to pick up food. Clients must prove they live in Glen Ellyn or a bordering community, but do not have to show proof of need. They may visit up to six times a year, and no more than once a month. Emergency bags are also available for walk-ins at the discretion of the supervisor.

The client first chooses from a list of staple foods (meat, cheese, eggs, milk) that are bagged by volunteers. While waiting for his or her staples to be bagged, the client receives a basket to use to shop for other foods to supplement those basics. I began as a bagger, then moved to a shopper, helping clients one on one choose from the assortment of extras on the shelves.

During a two-hour shift, I help maybe eight people. Each client is as different as the patterns in a kaleidoscope: retirees, the mentally ill, single mothers, young men fallen on hard times. Many are immigrants who speak no English: a Vietnamese woman with children, a refugee family from Sudan, an elderly woman from Ukraine. When confronted with such donated items as Suddenly Salad, Hostess Ding Dongs, bags of pastel-colored marshmallows, or SpaghettiOs, they are baffled. Even with an interpreter, they have difficulty bridging the culinary cultural barrier. If you have always shopped at an open-air market for your family, how do you understand instant mashed potatoes? Hamburger Helper? Fruit Roll-Ups?

Not everyone is grateful. Some clients, angry about their circumstances, refuse eye contact, choose foods as quickly as possible, and leave without saying more than a few words. Others take their frustration out on the volunteers. One woman lectured me on my “short shorts” (it was July, and we were sweltering). Another badgered me to let her pack her basket past the “full line,” refusing to take no for an answer until a supervisor intervened. A few take advantage, packing their baskets with the most expensive items on the shelves while telling me that “other food pantries have a much better selection than yours.”

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If you volunteer to feel good about yourself, you’ll work a few shifts, then give it up. Lofty ideals shatter like a stained-glass window pelted by rocks. Some days I wonder, Do food pantries really help?

“Who are we to judge who is truly hungry?” asked Susan Papierski, assistant director at the Glen Ellyn Food Pantry, acknowledging that she gets discouraged sometimes, too. “It’s that one person who really needs our services. I look at them and say, ‘That’s why I’m here.'”

She reminded me that hunger isn’t always obvious. “It can look like you and me. or it can be your neighbor and you don’t even know about it.” What helps her. she said. is hearing from donors who used to be clients. got back on their feet. and now help support the pantry.

When I am discouraged, I also think of the kids. As Fraser at Feeding America told me, “Children are not responsible for their circumstances.” Then he quoted a popular saying at his organization: “A child who is hungry cannot learn: they become an adult who cannot earn.” Making sure no one goes hungry makes not only moral sense but practical and economic sense as well.

It’s the grateful clients and the success stories that stick in my mind:

  • The refugee mother whose son went on to attend Harvard on a full scholarship.
  • The suburban morn who thanked me and “God blessed” me more times in 15 minutes than I could count.
  • The kind, elderly man from Florence who cracked jokes and laughed at my attempts to speak a few words of Italian as we selected pasta and cannellini beans.
  • The mother of the refugee family of six who showed palpable relief as she loaded her basket with rice, beans, and vegetables. That month, she could feed her family. Her smile said “thank you” in every language.

SEEING FACES

As my food pantry changes to meet the needs of its clients–offering fresh garden produce in the summer, keeping an eye on what local clients prefer and changing their staples to reflect this–I am changing as well. Now when I donate food, I think twice about what goes into my bag. Rice, cooking oil, chicken broth. Pasta and peanut butter. Canned beans. Tomato sauce. I remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:35: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,…”

  • Instead of a vague notion of “the hungry,” I see the Muslim woman with the shy, dark-haired four-year-old boy who has the most luminous eyes I’ve ever seen. The badly injured Asian woman unable to work hut cheerful and smiling nonetheless. The neatly dressed professional man who was laid off but has kept his dignity.
  • I think of two blonde girls ages six and eight. I coax their names from them. Then. warming up, they tell me about their favorite subjects in school. I think about them leaving the pantry, sitting down for dinner. and eating until they are full. I think of their exhausted mother packing their lunches for school the next day. I think of these girls growing up, healthy and strong.

Now when I think of the hungry, I no longer see headlines, but faces. And that has made all the difference.

Make a Difference

According to FeedingAmerica, more than 72 percent of the food banks surveyed at the end of 2008 were unable to adequately meet the demands of the hungry without limiting their operations or reducing the amount of food offered. Here’s how you can help:

* Write a check. Make a contribution to your local food bank, FeedingAmerica, or another organization that fights hunger.

* Volunteer. See the face of hunger for yourself. Most pantries have several tasks available, such as shopping, stocking shelves, sorting donations, or assisting clients.

* Donate food you would cook for your own family. Think healthy and simple. Avoid large, price club-sized cans or bags (most organizations can’t split these into smaller portions). Reject the impulse to clean out your pantry.

* Let your local and state politicians know you care about hunger, and vote accordingly. For updates on political issues affecting hunger, visit FeedingAmerica.org and click the “Advocate” tab.

* Host a neighborhood, school, church, or youth-group food drive. Ask your local food pantry what types of food are needed. Include that information when you solicit donations.

–Cindy Crosby

In the United States in 2007:

* 37.3 million people (12;5%) were in poverty.

* 13.3 million children under the age of 18 (18%) were in poverty.

* 3.6 million seniors ages 65 and older (917%) were in poverty.

* 36.2 million Americans (23,8 million adults and 12.4 million children) lived in food-insecure households.

* 3.9 million of all U.S. households(&4%) accessed emergency food from a food pantry one or m0re times.

Source: Feeding America (feedingamerica.org/faces-of-hunger/hunger-101/ hunger-and-poverty-statisticS.aspx)

Cindy Crosby s me author of five books including me Ancient Christian Devotional: Cycle C, with Thomas C. Oden Ma, 2009, IVP).

The reality of food animals

FOR OVER A DECADE, I’ve been travelling around the world documenting our complex and often disheartening relationship with animals. Specifically I look at the animals we use for food, entertainment, research and clothing. These are the ghosts in our highly mechanized world. They are the ignored, the invisible. Their body parts come shrink-wrapped and we call them protein. Their skins are shearling coats and leather boots. They are the animals kept in intensive farms who have been deindividualized to the extent that we don’t call them pig or baby cow, but pork and veal. But they are sentient individuals, as capable of feeling happiness, fear and pain as our cats and dogs.

  • These images offer a view of “a day in the life” of factory farmed animals, and give us an opportunity to meet the animals up close, as well as to witness the conditions in which they live inside these modern barns.
  • I’ve photographed factory farms throughout the Americas, Asia and Europe, and these industries have grown in size and density everywhere in order to keep up with our demand for cheap meat. In Canada we eat approximately 565 million animals each year. They don’t live out their lives in pastures; there simply isn’t the space.

Layer hens live in a space roughly the size of one page of this magazine. Laws prohibit more than five hens to a cage, but there are often up to six and even eight in each. If you can imagine being tied into an airplane seat for your whole life, unable to move around, this is the life of a gestation sow, who is bred to give birth to piglets two and a half times a year. Dairy cows can live up to 20 years. Their bodies, however, are considered “spent” after three to four years in the intensive breeding and milking programs of the industry, and they are sent to slaughter to be used for low-grade meats. Their young are taken away at birth so that we can drink milk. Many people won’t eat veal because it is known to be cruel, and yet to drink milk is to support the veal industry, as we can’t have milk without cows giving birth.

  • There is more to the cruelty here than cramped conditions and shortened life spans. The very air in these factory farms is an assault to the senses. I wear a mask over my mouth and nose while taking photos to help spare my lungs, but my unprotected eyes burn from the fumes of ammonia. Pigs and hens, who spend their whole lives in these conditions, often suffer from lung infections from the acridity and dust. The smell is horrible for humans, but to pigs, who have incredibly sensitive snouts, it must be agony. Pigs can sniff out truffles growing up to four feet underground.
  • While doing an investigation at a pig farm in Spain, we moved up and down the rows of stalls, documenting piglets suffering from infected castrations (done without anaesthetic) and painful ear clippings. As we left, we noticed that we had been walking on hundreds of severed pig tails that had been “docked” that day but not yet swept away. Even at the young ages of two and three weeks, the piglets had learned to fear humans. They squealed and climbed over one another to get as far away from us as possible.

If asked, most everyone will agree that they do not want to see animals suffer, nor do they wish to be complicit in their suffering. I believe that we’re innately compassionate, and that if we can make the conditions of factory farming visible, giving people the opportunity to learn about what goes on behind closed doors, many of us will choose to change our involvement in this suffering.

If we want to put an end to the suffering of the invisible animals we consume and use every day, we need to not just look, but see. And once we see, we need to help, and not turn away.

Cookbooks and their authors

Forty years ago, when I sat down at the reference desk as a virgin librarian and awaited my deflowering from the public, I was pretty cocky. No one could possibly be more prepared for what was to come than I was. No one knew more about reference and readers’-advisory work than I did. I was ready for anything that a patron could possibly desire.

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As an undergraduate, I had studied the classics of Greece and Rome, the literature of the Middle Ages, the poetry of Victorian England, the essays of the New England transcendentalists, the tragedies of Shakespeare, and the comedies of Aristophanes. Then, in graduate school, I covered the entire spectrum of children’s and young-adult literature, the classic works of reference, and even genre fiction. I knew books–everything from Dante to Danielle Steel.

  • So … what was my “first time” like at the reference desk? A rather rotund woman approached me and asked, “Can you put me on the waiting list for that new watermelon diet book?” What a disappointment! Why not a question on the relationship of abstract expressionism to Dada? How about an analysis of the symbolism in Moby-Dick?
  • I told myself that things would get better. But they didn’t. By the end of the day, I had received five more requests for diet and cooking books. I soon learned that the single biggest informational need that people have centers on food. By the end of the week, the number was tip to 40. By the end of the month, I had stopped counting. My mantra soon became food is life.

Unfortunately, food books were the one area of the collection I knew nothing about. I was brought up in the era when boys took shop and girls took home economics. My problem was exacerbated by the fact that the food section was the single biggest area in our nonfiction collection.

How would I become proficient in this area? No way I was going to actually read these books and cook the recipes, and there were no Cliff’s Notes for cookbooks back then. How would I master the art of recommending food books? My solution was to rely on the dust-jacket photos of the authors.

  • This was a methodology that I had explored in library school. I had a theory that different readers are attracted to different author pictures and that if a reader has a negative feeling about an author based upon the dust-jacket photo, nothing (not even a great review) will motivate that reader to surrender a sense of intimacy to the book. What I did to test my theory was take a series of eight photographs of various everyday noncelebrities and show them to 150 randomly selected library patrons. I asked each patron four questions about each photograph: Would you read (1) a cookbook, (2) a mystery, (3) a romance, and (4) a general nonfiction book by the person in the photograph. What did I find? These patrons preferred to read cookbooks by fat people, mysteries by skinny people, and nonfiction books by people with a scholarly, elitist look about them–pipes, bow ties, and wire-framed glasses … that sort of thing. The romance results came back inconclusive so I did some follow-up research and found that older women preferred romances written by dignified, white-haired ladies wearing furs, and younger women preferred romances written by younger, sexier women wearing plunging blouses and short skirts.

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  • So, drawing upon my graduate-school research, I began pushing cookbooks by fat authors to the many patrons who wanted foodbooks. James Beard was the great fat cookbook author of that era. Beard was not only fat but he always looked happy and satisfied, a kind of modern-day Falstaff. I have always believed that food has two basic purposes: nourishment and pleasure. Of today’s many cookbook authors, Paula Dean and Rachael Ray seem best to radiate those two qualities. They both appear happy and a tad chunky in their dust-jacket photos. That, I am sure, is the secret to their best-selling success. One senses that their recipes provide the comfort level we seek in a meal. Martha Stewart used to put me into that comfort zone, but her recent dust-jacket photos re veal a certain world weariness, almost like she’s trying to appear happy. Martha never used to have to try.

Today, things have changed a bit in the food-book industry. As our population ages, more and more people are becoming vegetarians. It’s the health-wise way to eat. That presents a real problem for readers’-advisory librarians. The photos for the vegan authors tend to radiate more intensity than joy. The look seems to be a bit smug, as if the authors were saying, “We’re holier than the rest of you, and we are the ones saving the planet.” May I recommend Madhur Jaffrey’s book World Vegetarian? Of all the dust-jacket photos on vegetarian cookbooks, hers resonates with the most joy. She is positively radiant. I’m betting two-to-one that her recipes pack more happiness than what you will find in the average vegan cookbook.

Finally, there is the issue of the always-expanding world of diet books. As our population gets fatter and fatter, so, too, have our diet-book collections bulked up. Always look for a skinny diet author. Remember The James Coco Diet (1984)? Well, Coco looked downright rotund on his dust jacket. And two years later, he was dead.

Will Manley has been writing the Manley Arts since 1991. Visit Will at willmanley.com.

Food for thought

IN MICHIGAN, where I grew up, my family observed a classic Midwest tradition. With every major life event, we aimed to nourish relatives, friends and neighbors. A birth in the family? Let them eat German chocolate cake. A death? Please accept our condolences and this vegetable lasagna with heating instructions taped to the plastic wrap. That was just what you did.

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We also cooked to heal ourselves. Every Saturday for 22 years, my Grandpa Charles made a massive vat of chili for the kids in the neighborhood. The children waited with chipped, mismatched bowls in hand until he took a final taste and declared it perfect. As a kid, I thought his chili was simple generosity. Now I know that making it offered him something valuable, too. Grandpa spent his life as a manual laborer, hauling iron and sweating away in hot boiler rooms. Cooking his weekend chili helped him forget the pain of his week and show off talents beyond his brute strength. All those chili bowls licked clean probably felt like the equivalent of applause.

  • I started cooking to compensate for challenging days on the job, too. As a young reporter in Florida, if I left the newsroom haunted by a particularly gruesome crime, as if cued by genetic instinct, I would drive straight to a supermarket and then spend two hours carefully crafting a vat of braised lamb shanks and biscuits scented with rosemary–one of my grandfather’s recipes. I’d sip wine and shift mental gears as I traced the recipe’s familiar steps: Brown the meat; don’t overwork the dough; add the salt. Then I’d notice the volume of food I’d inadvertently made and round up neighbors I barely knew for an impromptu dinner party. By the end of the night, my worries would have been forgotten.

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  • Since then, I’ve held many such supper parties. I’ve also had those diners drop by with crocks of food in return–culinary karma at work, as with all those cakes and casseroles from my Midwest youth. I appreciate the tradition more than ever.

Sometimes the simple act of cooking can offer a way to do something to ease the feeling of helplessness or of being overwhelmed. It’s easy to say, “If there’s anything I can do…,” but the phrase can feel empty.

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Not long ago, a friend was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer. At that point, there was nothing anyone could do–except that I could make a big pot of coq au vin, one of her favorites. Cooking was a comfort, and it gave me an excuse to see my friend and discuss something other than her illness. “This looks great!” she said when I brought over the dish.

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As we sat down at her table, I realized that sharing this food provided something essential–something we needed. This felt normal.

With that, we ate.

Kathleen Flinn’s latest book, Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good, was published in August.

Feed the world

With the global population projected to hit nine billion before 2050, agricultural scientists are calling for a new Green Revolution to feed all of those extra mouths. But can science and technology work the same miracles and raise crop yields in time, or will climate change prove to be agriculture’s undoing?

Humans have always made the soil work hard, but with the global population set to increase from its current–and almost incomprehensible–6.8 billion to a mind-boggling 9.1 billion in 2050, we’re about to make it work harder than ever. That prediction, by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), represents a 34 per cent increase, and feeding all of those extra mouths would seem to be, at first glance, a Herculean task.

  • And it looks even less attainable when you consider that we can’t even feed our present population: last year, says the FAO, the number of chronically undernourished people–those who are unable to satisfy their basic needs in terms of food energy–passed the one billion mark, up from 842 million at the beginning of the 1990s.
  • Right now, across East Africa, more than 23 million people face critical food shortages following successive years of failed rains and worsening drought. Rice stocks held by the five major exporters recently fell from 30 million tonnes to 20 million tonnes; the international price of wheat rose by 75 per cent in 2007. The rocketing prices of almost all major food and feed commodities that year saw an additional 40 million people in Asia and the Pacific, and 22 million in sub-Saharan Africa, classified as undernourished.

‘We are not doing very well at all in feeding people,’ says Dr Keith Wiebe, deputy director of the FAO’s Agricultural Development Economics Division. ‘There had been progress towards reducing hunger, but it has gone into reverse in the past couple of years with price hikes and the recession. Biofuels are one of a number of significant factors, but we’ve seen poor harvests, high oil prices and increasing demand from China and India.’

It looks as though attempts to feed us all will merely determine the most efficient way to saw off the tree branch on which we’re standing. Yet many observers–including Wiebe–are optimistic, pointing out that food production continues to outpace population growth. While the global population has risen from three billion in 1960 to almost seven billion in 2009, the Royal Society calculates that for each person alive today, there is, in theory, an additional 29 per cent more food compared with 1960. FAO gross worldfood production (cereals, coarse grains, roots and tubers, pulses and oil crops) has grown from 1.84 billion tonnes in 1961 to 4.38 billion tonnes in 2007.

This has been achieved without an enormous expansion of land use. The total agricultural area has increased 11 per cent since the 1960s to 4.93 billion hectares, and arable area by nine per cent to 1.41 billion hectares. Today, just 150 crops are cultivated, a sharp drop from the 10,000 estimated by the Worldwatch Institute to have been employed historically, and three grains–maize, rice, and wheat–combined with potatoes, provide more than half of human energy needs.

  • Cereal yields can often be relatively easily improved with existing varieties of grain and with known practices, says the FAO. In Africa, they stand at around 1.2 tonnes per hectare, compared to an average yield of three tonnes per hectare in the developing world as a whole. To give one example, Senegal depends on imports for half of its food, but could not only be self sufficient but could potentially become a food exporter.

CURRENT CONCERNS

There are many reasons for the ills that plague global food production. Farmers often lack sufficient incentives or training to adopt yield-enhancing seeds or cropping techniques; countries with a surplus often export food and sell it at below cost, putting local farmers out of business; there’s a shrinking rural workforce, turning food producers into urban food consumers; the costs of agricultural inputs and energy are rising; and water scarcity is an increasing concern.

Biofuels, as Wiebe points out, are another emerging area of disquiet: grain production for biofuels increased by more than five per cent in 2008 to 120 million tonnes, according to the Worldwatch Institute, an almost ten per cent increase over the previous year. The FAO reports that continued rapid expansion of biofuel production up to 2050 would lead to three million more pre-school children in Africa and 1.7 million in South Asia being undernourished than would otherwise have been the case.

  • The withdrawal of state support for food production since the 1960s has been one of the most influential factors, according to Fred Mousseau, humanitarian policy advisor at Oxfam GB. ‘Governments sort of forgot about producing agriculture and bought cheapfood on international markets,’ he says. ‘There was little investment in small-scale farmers, herders, pastoralists. It hasn’t really worked. The private sector hasn’t filled the gap left by the state in the way that the World Bank expected.’
  • Perhaps the ugliest manifestation of rising concerns over food security has been the emergence of the land grab. Nearly 2.5 million hectares of farmland, generally arable but fallow, in five sub-Saharan countries–Ethiopia, Ghana, Madagascar, Mali and Sudan–have been bought or rented in the past five years at a total cost of US$920million, according to a report by the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the FAO and the International Institute for Environment and Development. In Ethiopia, India invested US$4billion in agriculture, including flower-growing and sugar estates; in Sudan, Saudi Arabia leased 10,000 hectares for wheat, vegetables, and livestock. Meanwhile, China acquired the rights to grow palm oil on 2.8 million hectares of Congolese land, and in Kenya, Qatar leased 20,000 hectares for fruit and vegetable cultivation in exchange for funding a US$2.3billion port.

GRIM SCENARIOS

So how much more food and land will we need in 2050? The FAO says that overall food production will need to increase by 70 per cent; annual cereal production will need to rise to about three billion tonnes from 2.1 billion tonnes today; and annual meat production will need to increase by more than 200 million tonnes to 470 million tonnes.

According to the FAO, the world has considerable land reserves that could, in theory, be converted to arable land. Currently, about 15 million square kilometres, roughly ten per cent the total land surface, is covered by cropland. The FAO projects that by 2050, the area of arable land will be expanded by 70 million hectares, or about five per cent, with land in developing countries expanding by 120 million hectares and arable land in developed nations contracting by 50 million hectares.

These figures are likely to rise as more people become better off and eat more meat, and land is set aside for biofuels. These changing consumption patterns, the impacts of climate change and the growing scarcity of water and land led John Beddington, the UK government’s chief scientific advisor, to describe the future global confluence of food, water and energy insecurity as a ‘perfect storm’.

  • Most scenarios of how climate change will affect our efforts to feed ourselves appear grim: salt water from rising sea levels affecting paddy fields; unpredictable climate with unreliable rainfall patterns harming seasonal farming practices; extreme weather damaging crops; and an increase in pests and disease. The FAO also reports that sub-Saharan Africa’s share of the world’s hungry people could rise from 24 per cent to up to 50 per cent. ‘The detrimental effects of climate change could reduce global crop production by almost ten per cent by 2050,’ says Stefanie Rost of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK).

  • Yet the picture is, perhaps unexpectedly, more mixed: the International Panel on Climate Change projects that global foodproduction could rise if local average temperatures increase by up to 3[degrees]C; any warmer and it could decrease. There may also be beneficial effects on plant growth from the rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. And a report published late last year by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) suggested that in East Africa, the effects of climate change on maize and bean harvests would see moderate declines across the region, but some agricultural areas would do better than others. In the mixed crop-livestock systems of the tropical highlands, the study suggested that rising temperatures may actually favour foodcrops, helping to boost output of maize by about half in highland ‘breadbasket’ areas of Kenya and beans in similar parts of Tanzania. However, harvests of maize and beans could decrease in more humid areas, and across the entire region, production of both crops is projected to decline significantly in dry lands.

Carlos Sere, director general of the ILRI, has an optimistic interpretation. ‘The emerging scenario of climate-change winners and losers isn’t inevitable,’ he says. ‘Despite an expected threefold increase in food demand by 2050, East Africa can still deliver foodsecurity for all through a smart approach that carefully matches policies and technologies to the needs and opportunities of particular areas.’

PEASANT POWER

But if we get it wrong, hunger won’t be the only consequence. In 2007, food riots broke out in Mexico as corn prices rose after the USA began to divert the crop to produce ethanol. Dissatisfaction at the way in which global food production is organised has crystallised into the Via Campesina, an international peasant movement that originated in the 1990s but has gained impetus from recent rises in food prices. Today, it represents farmers in 56 countries, including an organisation of Scottish crofters. The movement talks of food sovereignty rather than food security, by which its leaders seek to organise food production and consumption according to the needs of local communities, giving priority to production for local consumption.

A fundamental tenet of Via Campesina is that peasant or family-farm agriculture is based on sustainable production with local resources and in harmony with local culture and traditions. This approach has increasing sympathy and support among manyfood scientists, who endorse what is described as an agro-ecological approach to food production. This involves mixing varieties of crops, polycultures and crop-livestock combinations whose sustainability is underpinned by the use of local energy, material and labour resources, and species diversity.

  • ‘The same key principles underlie the sustainability of these farms,’ says Professor Miguel Altieri, an agro-ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley. ‘Farmers who live in rural communities near cities and towns, and are linked to local markets, avoid the energy wasted and gas emissions associated with transporting food hundreds and even thousands of kilometres.’
  • Altieri argues that the world already has enough land and food to feed nine billion people, but that the present top-down approach to agriculture prevents this from happening. ‘The problem is political,’ he says. ‘If you want to solve the problem, you instigate land reform, giving land to small farms. The trouble is that research organisations are supporters of genetic selection because they are all plant breeders. In the 1960s, the food movement was driven by a pesticides treadmill; today it’s being driven by a transgenics treadmill.’

But Altieri stresses that he’s no Luddite. ‘We have a dialogue between science and the traditional knowledge of farmers who have been farming for thousands of years,’ he says. ‘Diversity is the key. It’s an agricultural model that decouples us from a dependence on pesticides and provides resilience to climate change.’

The view is endorsed by the UK-based Food Ethics Council (FEC), which argues that too much emphasis is placed on growingfood, as opposed to how it’s distributed and consumed. ‘Instead of asking, “How can science and technology help secure globalfood supplies?”, we need to ask, “What can be done–by scientists but also by others–to help the world’s hungry?”,’ says Dr Tom MacMillan, the council’s executive director.

  • The FEC isn’t alone. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a UN-backed study written by 400 scientists and approved by 60 governments, including that of the UK, cites the failure of many developed nations to consider social and environmental needs when trying to meet agricultural production goals. Instead, IAASTD argues that the key is to combine science and technology research with traditional knowledge to provide local solutions.
  • The FAO’s Wiebe also favours this approach. ‘It’s unfortunate the debate between agro-ecology and science has become so polarised,’ he says. ‘Neither by themselves will be sufficient. There’s going to be a mix of solutions, most of them site-specific. The important thing is to be open to both knowledge of farmers and modern science.’

DFID, the UK government’s international aid department, has begun to make funding for some projects conditional on scientists consulting local communities, and Britain’s Royal Society believes crop researchers should undergo placements in developing nations. ‘You need to link scientists to the ultimate end users,’ says Dr James Smith, co-director of the Centre of African Studies and ESRC Innogen Centre at the University of Edinburgh. ‘You get everybody involved and think how it will translate from the field lab into farming.’

‘A lot of the debate about technology shouldn’t be about the technologies themselves but about their application,’ says Oxfam GB’s Mousseau. ‘How do we save water, protect the fertility of the land? [Answering these questions] doesn’t require research institutes, it requires training of farmers on the ground.’ Mousseau points to the example of Ethiopian corn farmers. Thanks to government loans, in 2002, Ethiopia enjoyed its highest corn production for a decade. But with no system to help the farmers market the corn, there was no price control, the market collapsed and farmers sold at a loss. Many went bankrupt and ended up being recipients of UN food aid.

NEW TECHNOLOGIES

It’s clear, however, that new technologies will be needed to make up for shortfalls in land and farming skills, and many experts believe that new varieties of food staples, either developed by genetic modification or through plant breeding, are essential. Examples include salt-tolerant rice, drought-tolerant maize and heat-tolerant varieties of climbing beans.

Last autumn, the Royal Society published Reaping the Benefits, a report that called for 2billion [pounds sterling] to be invested in new technologies to address global food security. The society said that agro-ecology had a role to play, but that in the medium term, genetic modification and breeding of new varieties of crops that are resistant to disease, drought, salinity, heat and toxic heavy metals was essential. The longer term aim, the society said, is the development of nitrogen-fixing cereals, which would require less fertiliser, and perennial crops.

Yet some observers are concerned that those seeking to alleviate hunger can become too hamstrung by technology–and that technology risks becoming one-dimensional. Many of the innovations that will emerge are likely to come from the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, which has sought to centralise expertise and research into regional hubs to be disseminated around the world.

  • Technology is crucial, but is frequently not practically applied to local conditions, according to Smith, who feels that scientific research needs to become ore practical and tap into local knowledge more than it has done in the past. ‘We have a situation where centres are focusing on high-risk, high-gain programmes, rather than spreading risk and expertise around. It needs to be more subtle,’ he says. ‘It’s not clear to me that biofuels or GM crops will answer the problems.’
  • A reduction of water use will undoubtedly be central to many solutions. Irrigated agriculture covers one fifth of arable land and contributes nearly half of crop production, says the FAO. According to the PIK, without substantial improvements in water productivity or other measures to increase yields on present cropland, an expansion by about ten million square kilometres would be required to feed a population of ten billion. This would require an extra 4,500 cubic kilometres of water every year on top of the current 8,800 cubic kilometres used. ‘In many regions of the world that already face limits of water availability, that isn’t an option. We need to think of better ways to use the water that’s there,’ says Dieter Gerten, a hydrologist at the PIK.

Studies by the PIK looking at harvesting rainwater for use during dry spells and reducing soil evaporation found that such behaviour could increase global crop production by about 20 per cent, with the highest potential mainly in semi-arid regions such as the US Midwest, the Sahel, southern Africa, and central Asia.

WWF has pioneered a system of rice intensification that appears to increase yields and use less water–a potentially crucial development since half of the world depends on rice as a food staple, source of income, or both. Traditional farming requires up to 5,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of rice; the WWF technique plants young, single seedlings around 25 centimetres apart, providing better airflow and access to sunlight than in conventional systems. Pilot projects in India show crop yields up from three tonnes to five tonnes per hectare, using 40 per cent less water.

DAUNTING TARGET

Yet that finishing line, with the daunting target of feeding 9.1 billion people by 2050, looms ever larger. Smith feels that, unless significantly altered, the present system of crop research could fail to deliver. ‘The Green Revolution created new varieties of grains that worked in optimal conditions. With climate change, there may well not be optimal conditions,’ he says. ‘The reality is, we can’t feed everyone properly now. I suspect that there will always be one billion people or more who are malnourished or have insufficient calories.’

But Oxfam GB’s Mousseau argues that the goal is achievable–just. ‘It will require an increase in political will compared with what we’ve seen,’ he says. ‘It’s possible, but there has to be a recognition that this is about people’s right to food, rather than the interests of a few large corporations who are trying to guide the international agenda. There are successful examples: Indonesia and Brazil have both reversed the tide through proactive programmes in food and agriculture.’

Wiebe also believes the target is attainable. ‘I’m cautiously optimistic,’ he says. ‘That it’s a difficult challenge is illustrated by the fact that we’re nowhere near feeding everyone today. But it’s more a question of access to food than production. The resources are there. It requires policy choices and appropriate investment. These are big challenges, but the FAO thinks they can be met.’

The Green Revolution

The Green Revolution began in the 1960s, transforming agricultural practices and using technological innovation to breed hybrid varieties of cereal crops and significantly increase crop yields. Early examples included high-yielding hybrid Wheat in Mexico and hybrid varieties of rice in the Philippines.

The increases have been substantial. According to the FAO, between 1961 and 1985, yields of cereal crops such as wheat, rice and maize doubled in developing countries. But there were drawbacks. For the most part, food wasn’t grown where the need for it was most pressing. The Green Revolution was generally unable to significantly increase yields in more marginal areas and demanded that farmers engage in new and more intensive forms of agricultural production, in some cases dramatically altering their livelihoods and the risks they were obliged to take.

Where crop improvements were accompanied by investment in infrastructure, such as in parts of Asia and Latin America, there were widespread benefits. But the poorest farmers in Asia, and more particularly in Africa, lacked the resources to adopt the entire package of technologies. Yield increases varied, and were more successful in environments that most closely mirrored those of the research centres where the seeds were first developed.

The Green Revolution also concentrated investment in a series of international agricultural research centres, the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research. ‘There’s a brain drain, where you see the local agricultural research programmes in developing countries being stripped of the best people,’ says Dr James Smith, co-director of the Centre of African Studies and ESRC Innogen Centre at the University of Edinburgh. ‘The big institutions take up the funds and local centres can’t compete.’

Technology meets tradition

The answers to improving yields don’t always–or even, perhaps, often–require multi-million-pound technological investment. In Kenya, the use of a so-called push-pull system of pest management devised by the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology has increased maize yields by more than 100 per cent, and has now been adopted by more than 10,000 farmers there and in Uganda and Tanzania.

Maize is an important food and cash crop in East Africa, but it’s plagued by two moths: the spotted stem borer (below) and the maize stalk borer (bottom). The larvae of these moths can cause yield losses of up to 40 per cent.

The low-cost system removes the need for pesticides through the use of plant species that either ‘push’ away the pests or ‘pull’ them into ‘trap’ crops. First, the maize field is surrounded by a border of Napier grass, which is more attractive to the moths than maize (the ‘pull’ part of the system). The forage legume silverleaf is then planted within the maize. This releases semiochemicals that repel the stem borer moths (the ‘push’ element). Silverleaf also fixes atmospheric nitrogen, contributing to crop nutrition.

The Royal Society cites the push-pull system as a classic example of the combination of local knowledge with agro-ecology. Researchers are now looking to develop push-pull strategies for crops other than maize.