On Friday July 13th I headed from Donegal to Dublin to attend a session of the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) on “The Great Debate on the battle to feed a changing planet.” Just so no one could accuse me of using too many greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on the trip, I took the No. 30 bus from Donegal Town – lower carbon footprint than driving and I did not have the time or energy to walk or bicycle. The 7:00 am bus arrived right on time, i.e., 7:10 am. Unfortunately the door to the bus would not open and the driver had to return to the depot in town to get another bus. Despite the crack in the front windscreen in this second bus, we were off by 7:30. At the third stop, in Enniskillen Northern Ireland, a family with several young children departed but not before the father quietly informed the bus driver that one of the kids had vomited in the back of the bus. The unfazed bus driver went in search of a station manager and they together went in search of a bucket and mop. Half-hour later, the driver announced that we were now ready to get back on the road and, under his breath but loud enough for some to hear, he added that cleaning up vomit is woman’s work, at which a hiss went up from some of the women onboard. Off we went, only to be diverted fifteen minutes later to a narrow country road where trees lurched toward our bus windows and huge lorries coming from the opposite direction hugged the center-line of the road, while we rode very close to the back wheel of a bicyclist for a mile. We arrived at the Dublin bus station, Busaras, only an hour late, which was not bad for the No. 30 bus as usually it is 30 to 45 minutes late in the best of times.
A short walk and I was at the Convention Center of Dublin waiting for The Great Debate to begin. Given the day, I feared that the session would merely continue the misadventures and would be filled with its own diversions — clichés and sound bites — what a friend had described as a set piece.
I was pleasantly surprised as the session turned out to be engaging and useful in understanding the terms of the debate and some of the critical choices we all face. The bus trip was worth it after all.
The session was smartly structured and whoever is responsible deserves credit. Often in such situations, the panel members make some remarks, which tend to repeat remarks made at other conferences, and then there are questions from the audience, which tend to be filled with advocacy instead of questions.
Instead, the program, warmly and professionally moderated by Leo Enright, a former broadcaster in Ireland, began with a video of some children around the world individually commenting on the big issue, food and climate change. Enright explained that it would be important to hear from the citizens of the 21st century as all of us in the audience were born in the 20th century and it was these younger citizens who would pay for what we had done, and failed to do. While this might have been hokey, the kids turned out to be sharp and entertaining. One suggested that the way we had handled the planet was like someone who is given something, breaks it and then gives it back without fixing it. Another said, with delicious irony, that getting our protein from cows was creating problems, so we should turn to worms and insects because they provide lots of protein, and besides in the future only really rich people will be able to afford beef. Another said that we can all do something to help, no matter how small, and bigger people will have to do some big things.
Then Enright called on two people in the audience to raise some of the issues framing the debate. First, Oisin Coghlan of Friends of the Earth (Ireland) succinctly suggested that those in Ireland who argue that to overcome food insecurity food production has to trump GHG emission concerns miss the point. It is not food production that is the problem, Coghlan argued, but food distribution, as there is enough food being produced but it’s not getting to those who need it. He also pointed out that if more is not done to control GHG emissions, and the global climate warms by 4º, there will not be any food production in Ireland. See below for a link to Coghlan’s remarks.
Second, Michael Barry of the Irish Dairy Industries Association forcefully argued that Ireland’s agriculture sector was dominated by carbon-efficient, family farms and that it was better for the planet if the additional food needed to feed 9 billion people in the near future was produced by the most sustainable farming practices, like grass-fed cows, in the most sustainable regions of the world, like Ireland. He added that some 30,000 farms in Ireland were undergoing an audit to determine their actual carbon footprint, and to learn what might be improved. Barrys’ remarks are provided below.
In addition, members of the audience were asked to use small cell-phone-sized devices to record their responses to certain questions shown on a screen, such as what was the most important way of solving the problem between food production and climate change with four choices given. Responses were tabulated and displayed immediately with the audience evenly distributed between the four choices.
Finally, people listening to the session were invited to send in Tweets and these were periodically displayed. One of the first Tweets shown said: “Just waiting for panel to begin.” Not a revelation by any means. Later someone tweeted that they were one of those farmers being subject to the carbon audit of Irish farms and while it was a start it was very simplistic.
Heeding the first tweet, Enright then opened the debate to the panelists who were: Marion Guillou, President of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research; Lynn Frewer, Newcaste University, UK; Rajendra K. Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), winner of the Nobel Peace Prize; Louise Fresco, University of Amsterdam; and Pamela C. Ronald, University of California-Davis. The panelists began to weigh in on the debate, and the issue of production versus distribution received much of the attention throughout the session.
Pachuari, Fresco and Arnold
Pachauri noted that the audience was on target with their evenly-distributed responses since there are no silver bullets and we need all the means of addressing the conflict between food and climate. He agreed with Coghlan that distribution was the main problem and noted that climate change will likely lead to a 50% drop in agricultural yield in some African nations and this would affect the subsistence farms, not ones that export food. He wondered just were would such famers get the means to buy imported food. Whenever someone in the audience or on the panel praised a particular food production practice, as for instance in Israel, and implied that we just need to follow these practices, Pachauri was present to point out that not everybody has the same resources to implement these best practices. He also added that technological improvements need to account for the socio-economic conditions where such improvements are intended to be applied. Pachuari strongly argued for a carbon tax as a critical tool for improving agriculture.
Following on Pachauri, Louise Fresco added that we need to help people produce food locally, where it is needed, rather than increasing food production elsewhere. Intensification of food production is needed but the issue is where should that intensification occur. For instance, cereal can be produced in Asia where it is very much needed. But there may be products, like milk, that cannot be produced locally and will continue to be produced elsewhere. Later she added that we need intensification along the entire chain of food production, not just farmers but also processors, and the chain remains largely a private sector enterprise. She also suggested a reduced VAT on sustainably produced food.
Guillou and Frewer
Marion Guillou said that a small increase in yield, particularly for basic foods — wheat, maize, rice — could feed the world but we need to understand whatever technological fix worked before may not work in the very different conditions being brought about by climate change. Others also noted that the older Green Revolution no longer applied as it took place under very different conditions, and that seeds were not the answer as much as conservation of productive soil in the face of climate changes.
Pamela Ronald spoke of projects where sustainable technology, particularly genetic modifications, made major contributions. Later she added that farming must be made profitable if we are to encourage farmers to stay in the business and if others are to join them. A speaker from the audience commented also that production is not the main issue as farmers in the UK were spilling milk down sewers in protest over pricing.
Lynn Frewer pointed out that distribution was indeed a problem but she added an interesting twist to the notion, pointing out that 30-40% of food in developed countries is wasted and thrown away and that obesity was a growing problem. If we could redistribute the wasted food and calories of those overweight, much of the food scarcity would be resolved. She added her voice to those calling for the need to grow food close to where it is consumed, and helping those in poorer countries develop these capacities. Frewer suggested that awareness of the problem, between food and climate, is not enough as we need to change behavior so that people engage in more sustainable eating.
There were no quick or easy or simple solutions offered to the dilemma. Most of the panelists promoted more research. While more research is certainly needed, its promotion should not come from those in the business of conducting, and making money or reputations, from more research.
Several panelists agreed with the comment from Duncan Stewart in the audience that scientists needed to better explain themselves to the general public if we are ever to get wider public participation in addressing climate change.
All in all it was a productive session and the audience seemed quite engaged by the panel. I did not even dread the No 30 bus trip back to Donegal.
Oisin Coghlan, Friends of the Earth, “Oisín’s opening statement at Teagasc Great Debate on Climate Change and Food Security.” www.foe.ie/blog/2012/07/13/oisns-opening-statement-at-teagasc-great-debate-on-climate-change-and-food-security-/
Michael Barry’s opening remarks at The Great Debate:
• Will we starve or will we burn – neither are acceptable outcomes. In Ireland we are fortunate to have a climate and soil balance that enables us to produce food in a highly sustainable manner. Our dairy and meat is produced mainly from grass fed animals on family farms – perhaps the idyllic model of sustainable agriculture
• Tackling Climate Change must be a priority for all even where sustainable agriculture exists
• This is a debate about people in a world that is growing rapidly
• We must not create policy that sets hunger against the environment; or people against planet; for this would not be sustainable
• Our challenge is to provide more food in a more sustainable way, in the most sustainable regions so that our impact on our climate is reduced
• Policy is not sustainable when it restricts food production in the most sustainable regions of the world. When different countries have differing policies on climate change, then restricting the production of sustainable food transfers its production to regions where sustainability is not a priority.
• The focus must be on sustainable food production in sustainable regions and not simply on the attainment of national targets
• While Ireland enjoys one of the world’s most sustainable systems of agriculture, our farmers are being advised on how to become even more sustainable.
• At present over 30,000 Irish farms are being independently assessed for their sustainability credentials and this number will grow
This is our vision of sustainable food production; we hope you can support us in this journey to make sure that we neither starve nor burn
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