The Future of Food at CGI 2012

One of the most interesting plenary sessions at CGI focused on a subject important both for the developing and the developed world: the future of food. A diverse panel of experts, moderated by Judith Rodin, the president of The Rockefeller Foundation touched on a number of different issues related to this question, offering a wide perspective on the possibilities of improving the sustainability of our food systems.

Akinwumi Adesina, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development of Nigeria, spoke eloquently about the importance of agriculture in terms of poverty alleviation, and the transformative power of sustainable agriculture. Coming from very different backgrounds,
Clarence Otis, Jr., the Chairman and CEO of Darden Restaurants (known for restaurants like Red Lobster and Olive Garden), and Irene B. Rosenfeld, the Chairman and CEO of Kraft Foods also sat on the panel discussion. Jason Clay, Senior Vice President of Market Transformation at the World Wildlife Fund rounded out the panel.

The poverty-alleviation potential of agriculture

Rodin’s questions were broad enough for each of the panelists to speak about the subject matter through the lens of their own expertise and background. “Agriculture has more potential to get millions of people out of poverty than any other activity”, said Adesina, explaining “we need to change our mindset about the potential of agriculture. In Nigeria today, agriculture is being treated as a business.” Rosenfeld mentioned the example of her company’s investment in cacao farms in Ghana through a public-private partnership, and how this helped the company secure a high-quality, high-yield source of a key input for their business. “It created a fabulous cycle of investing and opportunity,” Rosenfeld said. Indeed, there is no doubt that business has a large, significant role to play in agriculture – both in making it more ecologically and economically sustainable, but also in creating important opportunities in places where farming exists but is not yet productive enough to support livelihoods.

The role of business

Focusing more on the role of business in food sustainability in rich nations, Otis Jr. spoke the need to be “much more conscious about how we handle food”, noting that even though his company increased their diversion of waste by 14% in the last 3 years, food remains 1/3 of their waste, by weight. Scaling up the existence of systems for commercial composting, for example, is one of the ways in which we can mitigate food wastage.

Both Clay and Adesina spoke of the important question of crop diversification and the need to develop and support crop alternatives that are high in nutrients and don’t deplete soil resources. Adesina explained how Nigeria is being “bullish about turning cassava – a subsistence crop – into a cash crop”. Nigeria produces 40 million metric tonnes of cassava per year he explained, which can be turned into cassava flour, a healthy alternative to wheat flour (low in gluten, low in glycemic index, 60% of the cost of wheat bread), high fructose cassava syrup, or even ethanol. In line with the notion of framing agriculture as business, Nigeria exported 1.1 million metric tonnes of cassava chips, creating job opportunities and wealth for farmers.

Rethinking agriculture with sustainability in mind

One of the important questions about the sustainability of the food system is linked to the emergence of a global middle classes. There are inherent tensions between the growing demand for protein and energy and the degradation of ecosystems. Clay spoke about the need to invest in crops that have a low impact on the soil and the environment. According to him, one of the central questions of agricultural sustainability is “which crops produce more calories by acre of land, by liter of water?”Adesina spoke about how sees seafood as a key alternative to traditional protein sources, because it has less environmental implications than other forms of protein. “Our view”, he explained, “is that it’s going to take protected wild fisheries and agriculture to deal with this. We are very aware of the need to partner with organizations to make sure we protect fisheries, and to make sure we take full advantage of agriculture and its potential.” He further noted that governments must also sett standards, monitor closely, and have the ability to sanction.
Clay, for his part, noted that biotechnology offers “a huge potential to help solve issues of food and nutrition”, for example through biofortification.

The role of government

Steering the conversation, Rodin then asked the panelists what they thought the role of government should be, what kinds policies should be implemented to support more sustainable food systems. The panel’s responses fell into two general categories: 1, governments should enable agriculture and the private sector, and, 2, the government has a big role to play in terms of educating producers and consumers of food about their choices.

Adesina’s answer was focused on the role of government in supporting farmers in the developing world. “The role of government is to provide an enabling environment,” he said, “Investing in public goods like roads and irrigation, and institutions that can guarantee prices, mitigate against shocks. Why don’t we have a government enabled private sector? The government has to play a fundamental role.” He continued by saying that “smallholder farmers feed us. The role of government is to unlock the poverty trap. I have not found a single farmer who is a “subsistence” farmer. I only see farmers constrained by lack of access to markets, lack of inputs. The role of government is to unlock those bottlenecks.” Coming at this from a very different angle, Otis said he believes that the government has an important role to play in educating the public on what’s an appropriate amount to eat, and that this education should start as early as elementary school. The government should “educate the public, as opposed to demonizing various players.”

An issue of global, multisectoral proportions that engages individual responsibility

The panel agreed that it is vital to consider the issue of food sustainability in a holistic way, where multistakeholder engagement is essential. For Irene Rosenfeld, this means “focusing on more robust crops and farming techniques. We waste a lot of food from farm to fork, and we need to look at supply chains to reduce waste.” Adesina mentioned the “triangle of transformation”: technologies in the hands of farmer; get markets to work; and  use development finance to leverage commercial banks to invest more in agriculture.

Clay concluded the panel discussion by noting that the sustainability of the food system doesn’t just depend on government policies and private sector investments, but also largely on individual responsibility. “At an individual level, people should waste less,” he said, “food should be more thoughtful.”

Photo credit: Clinton Global Initiative