The challenge of feeding the world’s eight billion people while also preserving biodiversity provoked lively discussion at this year’s Klosters Forum in June on the ‘Future of Food Systems and Biodiversity Regeneration’.
“There is trickery in food, especially when food is produced in ways that destroy the relationships that are a prerequisite for sustainable food in the future,” said writer-educator Nora Bateson.
“People don’t eat nutrition, they eat food. So, what is food?” Bateson asked. Her answer was that it isn’t just agriculture, but also “about culture, about relationships, about the soil, about the generations that have worked the soil.” She proposed “warm” data as a way of reconciling these various issues. Warm data, Bateson explained, was about “mixing stories, biodiversity, ecology of ideas and education to perceive the interconnectedness of things, sharing information across contexts from chemistry to politics.” This meant recognising that “how the relationship between culture and identity plays out in food is very important.” Warm data “is fun”, she explained, “because it is connected to memories, to your own life.”
Another forum participant suggested we look more seriously at how to get diverse, nutritious food to the world’s 600 million people who do not have access to secure food sources. But apart from the traditional question of undernourishment, according to her, there’s also the fast-growing issue of obesity, as well as other problems linked to nutrition, including heart disease, diabetes and forms of cancer. The solution, she said, was to prioritise access to diverse, more nutritious food and to resist the fashionable view of “food as medicine” in favour of an approach based on “food as health.”
There’s a complex challenge in measuring agricultural ‘progress’ or scientific advances while also taking account of the risk of collateral damage if we accept the US-based Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Education’s definition of a food system as “the interrelationship of agricultural systems, their economic, social, cultural, and technological support systems, and systems of food distribution and consumption.”
"We still need a common language to define environmental biodiversity and then measure it."
The director of a major conservation organisation at the forum warned that science had its limitations and was often open to the charge of reductionism. “We can all use the same science and come to different solutions. Science can be the truth at a certain point of time, but it is the whole truth throughout time,” he said. While acknowledging he was “not sure we can feed the whole world through an ecological agricultural approach,” he argued that science had to change. “It is quite uncomfortable for scientists to emerge from their silos,” he said, “but the most interesting transformational ideas have come from those scientists that have done different things.”
“Nature has historically been viewed as priceless, so we have never priced it. Now we have to price it, we don’t know how,” one forum participant said. “What has been the effect of attempts to intensify agriculture on the natural capital of a country like Zimbabwe, for example? We just don’t know because farming sustainability is not adequately measured,” he said. Even more fundamentally, we still “need a common language to define environmental biodiversity and then measure it,” he said. For example, what is the real meaning of “sustainable intensification,” which is described by one international body as “an approach using innovations to increase productivity on existing agricultural land with positive environmental and social impacts.” He argued the term was “inadequately defined.”
Another participant thought that a bridge between science, with its fixation on tangible results, and sustainability could be found in the writings of Rudolf Steiner, the so-called ‘Scientist of the Invisible’, who rejected the division between scientific enquiry and dimensions of reality at the periphery of science such as emotional chemistry. “Science is good at coarse matter and energy, less good at fine measures,” he said.
"We have failed to help the young make sense of the world in which we find themselves."
Integrating the human element into discussion about biodiversity and food production could contribute to those “fine measures” one United Nations representative suggested. We need to frame the question of food sustainability in emerging markets and elsewhere in terms of “how to help farmers make a bit of money and support broader communities at the same time,” he said. “If you frame the question in terms of empathy and ways of doing business, you can get a better outcome,” he argued. He pointed to India, where pressure to produce more food per square metre of land led to a spike in suicides before a move away from pure productivism was found to produce better food more profitably.
The UN official thought youth and its aspirations would be key in the struggle for a sustainable food system. “Up to now,” he said “we have failed to help the young make sense of the world in which they find themselves. This has got to change. Interconnections between generations and disciplines is the key.”
Lamenting the “vested interests” which he felt continued to dominate various international food summits and the lack of consensus on food sustainability, another forum participant also placed his faith in youth, among whom he detected an underlying, if hard-to-define, “shift of consciousness.” He quoted Bob Dylan: “And something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is.”