The Future of Food: Seeds of Resilience

Robust seed systems are central to sustainable food systems that are renewable, resilient, equitable, diverse, healthy, and interconnected. We also believe that there is an urgency to supporting community based and farmer managed seed systems in order to protect and enhance seed diversity.

Recognizing this, the Global Alliance for the Future of Food commissioned experts from around the world to weigh in on a future that protects and improves resilient seed systems. This Compendium, which includes an Opportunities Report by agricultural biodiversity researchers Emile Frison and Toby Hodgkin, as well as twelve commentaries from a diverse range of experts, including farmers, community activists, business representatives, researchers, and scientists to better understand where we could collectively focus our efforts to address this issue.


Changing The Menu: How Top Chefs Can Inject New Life Into The Development Agenda

Author: Karen Newman | Published on: August 4, 2016

When you think about celebrity chefs, sustainable development may not be the first concept that pops to mind. And for the preponderance of foodies everywhere, the notion that three of the world’s most renowned chefs would want to use their star power, not to open a chain of restaurants or promote another cooking show, but to collaborate with the United Nations may seem puzzling. But that’s precisely what the Roca brothers, famed chefs from what has been consistently designated as among the World’s Best restaurants are set to do. As Goodwill Ambassadors for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and for the Sustainable Development Goals Fund (SDG-F), the Roca brothers will use their expertise in the culinary world to enhance the link between waste reduction, sustainability and food security issues.

And the timing couldn’t be better, especially during this pivotal year, with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) now providing a global framework designed to address poverty in all forms for the next 15 years. Considered the 2030 Agenda, the designated 17 goals aim to eliminate poverty, inequality, hunger and under-nutrition —and at the same time tackle the impact of climate change and adaptation. A key component of the SDGs is Goal #2, which aims to end all forms of hunger and malnutrition and ensure sustainable food systems by 2030. This means ensuring all people – especially children and the more vulnerable have access to sufficient and nutritious food all year round. It goes without saying that we need greater awareness on the issues and why the hungriest people are often farmers and their families.

UN Member states and other public and private stakeholders have made the connection between food security, nutrition and agriculture, especially around the complex issue of poverty alleviation. Initiatives like Scaling Up Nutrition and Zero Hunger Challenge launched by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have inspired action and increased awareness on these interrelated issues. But despite these promising efforts, an estimated 795 million people in the world still suffer from hunger according to Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

More profoundly, if current trends remain constant, agricultural production will have to increase by at least 60 percent in order to meet the projected demands of the world’s growing population, anticipated to reach 9 billion people by 2050. And all this—while it is estimated that the world loses about one-third of the food it does produce to waste and loss. A recent report by UNEP and the World Resources Institute (WRI), indicates that about one-third of all food produced worldwide, worth around US$1 trillion, gets lost or wasted in food production and consumption systems. More troubling is that when converted to calories, this means that about 1 in 4 calories intended for consumption is never actually eaten.


Want to Double World Food Production? Return the Land to Small Farmers!

Author: GRAIN | Published on: November 22, 2014

All over the world, small farmers are being forced off their land to make way for corporate agriculture, writes GRAIN – and it’s justified by the need to ‘feed the world’. But it’s the small farmers that are the most productive, and the more their land is grabbed, the more global hunger increases. We must give them their land back!

The United Nations declared 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming. As part of the celebrations, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) released its annual ‘State of Food and Agriculture‘, which this year is dedicated to family farming.

Family farmers, FAO say, manage 70-80% of the world’s farmland and produce 80% of the world’s food.

But on the ground – whether in Kenya, Brazil, China or Spain – rural people are being marginalised and threatened, displaced, beaten and even killed by a variety of powerful actors who want their land.

A recent comprehensive survey by GRAIN, examining data from around the world, finds that while small farmers feed the world, they are doing so with just 24% of the world’s farmland – or 17% if you leave out China and India. GRAIN’s report also shows that this meagre share is shrinking fast.


What Would It Take to Mainstream ‘Alternative’ Agriculture?

Author: Maywa Montenegro, Alastair Iles | Published on: August 26, 2016

Editor’s note: This Voices piece is published in collaboration with the academic journal Elementa. It is based on “Toward thick legitimacy: Creating a web of legitimacy for agroecology,” a peer-reviewed article published July 20 as part of Elementa’s New Pathways to Sustainability in Agroecological Systems forum.

The industrialized food system, studies have shown, is linked to greenhouse gas emissions, algal blooms, pesticide pollution, soil erosion and biodiversity loss, to name a few ecological troubles. Add to this a long list of social ills, from escalating rates of obesity to the demise of the family farmer and deadening of rural landscapes and rural economies across much of the U.S.

In 2010, the National Academies of Science updated its seminal 1989 publication “Alternative Agriculture” with a fresh look at the state of food and farming in America. Its expert panel concluded, “Growing awareness of unintended impacts associated with some agricultural production practices has led to heightened societal expectations for improved environmental, community, labor, and animal welfare standards in agriculture.”

Yet that growing awareness and those heightened expectations haven’t led to alternative agricultural systems becoming the norm in the U.S. Organic has made some headway, but many organic growers have been forced to imitate industrial farming: grow bigger, resort to monocultures instead of truly diversified fields, and sell to large supermarkets — forgoing many of the benefits alternative agricultural systems offer, such as natural pest control, pollination from native bees, and a smaller production scale conducive to family farmers and local food economies.

So, what gives industrialized agriculture such staying power despite its adverse impacts, even as alternatives offer such benefits? And how can more wholesome food production methods such as agroecology become conventional instead of alternative? To achieve real change in how food is produced and eaten, we need to change people’s expectations of what “normal” agriculture should look like.


Meat Is Magnificent: Water, Carbon, Methane & Nutrition

Author: Diana Rodgers, RD

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” – John Muir

There was a recent article in The Washington Post entitled “Meat is Horrible”, once again vilifying meat, that was full of inaccurate statements about the harm cattle impose on the land, how bad it is for our health, and how it should be taxed. Stories like this are all too common and we’ve absolutely got to change our thinking on what’s causing greenhouse gas emissions and our global health crisis.

Hint: it’s not grass-fed steak

In the few days since the story originally came out, I’ve been brewing up some different angle to write. I’ve written here, and here about the benefits of red meat, and how Tofurky isn’t the answer to healing the environment or our health. I keep saying the same thing over and over. Recently, I posted this as a response to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s new claims that a plant-based diet is optimal. I also wrote about Philadelphia’s sugar tax here, and I don’t think a meat tax is any better of an idea, especially when the government is subsidizing the feed. I’m feeling quite frustrated.

This morning, I went back to see the post and noticed that the story has been “significantly revised to address several inaccurate and incomplete statements about meat production’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.” Most of the original points, references and charts are missing. However there are still some important pieces of information that I feel the author missed. The main one being that meat itself isn’t evil, it’s the method by which we farm it (feed lots and CAFOs-Confined Animal Feeding Operations) and how we prepare it (breaded and deep fried), and what we eat alongside it (fries, and a large soda).


Michael Ableman’s 15-Point Urban Food Manifesto

Author: Katrina Blair

What if farms and food production were integrated into every aspect of urban living—from special assessments to create new farms and food businesses to teaching people how to grow fruits and vegetables so farmers can focus on staple crops.

That’s the crux of Michael Ableman’s Urban Food Manifesto, which has been ten years in the making and is spelled out in his new book, Street Farm. The book tells the story of Sole Food Street Farms, and the role it has played in revitalizing not only a neighborhood, but the lives of its individual farmers.

Read the manifesto below, and share it widely because urban farming — as told through Street Farm — is a story of recovery, of land and food, of people, and of the power of farming and nourishing others as a way to heal our world and ourselves.

You can also check out this Q&A with Ableman, where he describes in more detail the promise of urban farming.

I have been developing the following Urban Food Manifesto over the last ten years. Some of the ideas may sound radical; others will likely seem terribly obvious. Some are practical, some more ideological, but either way they are focused on the municipal and on individual ways to address what I consider to be some of the most prominent challenges in how we feed ourselves.

Every municipality should establish publicly supported agricultural training centers in central and accessible locations. I’m not talking about think tanks or demonstration gardens. I’m talking about working urban farms that model not only the social, cultural, and ecological benefits of farming in the city, but the economic benefits as well. We can talk about all of the wonderful reasons to farm in urban areas, but until we can demonstrate that it’s possible to make a decent living doing it, it’s going to be a tough sell.

Regular folks are now so removed from the work of farming that they need to literally see what’s possible. They need access to those who have maintained this knowledge and those who are serious and active practitioners. Every city should have teams of trained farm advisers in numbers proportionate to the population devoted to urban food production. Those agents should operate out of their local urban agriculture centers to run training workshops and classes; they should also venture out into the community to provide on-site technical support in production, in marketing, and in food processing and preparation.


A Modern Bison Primer


Author: Caroline Abels | Published on: July 26, 2016

Not long ago, it was bison that dominated North America, reaching into the tens of millions, whereas beef cattle were relative newcomers, introduced by European settlers and miniscule in number.

Today, those numbers have been flipped: there are 90 million cattle in the U.S. and roughly 185,000 bison (another 150,000 are being grazed in Canada). Having barely survived the U.S. government slaughter of the 1800s, modern bison is therefore a niche delicacy.

Even so, bison meat is beginning to show up in more places—in freezers at Costco, on menus at bowling alleys, and in the pockets of amateur athletes in the form of energy bars. Growing consumer preference for lean, grass-fed meats that are humanely raised and offer a taste of place is driving today’s steadily increasing demand. (The recent designation by Congress of bison as the national mammal may spark further interest.)

But consumer perception about how bison are raised doesn’t always line up with the reality. A common assumption is that all bison are raised on grass and live their entire lives under “purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain.”



Carrying Capacity of U.S. Agricultural Land: Ten Diet Scenarios

Authors: Research Article by Christian J. Peters, Jamie Picardy, Amelia F Darrouzet-Nardi, Jennifer L. Wilkins, Timothy S. Griffin, Gary W. Fick

Strategies for environmental sustainability and global food security must account for dietary change. Using a biophysical simulation model we calculated human carrying capacity under ten diet scenarios. The scenarios included two reference diets based on actual consumption and eight “Healthy Diet” scenarios that complied with nutritional recommendations but varied in the level of meat content. We considered the U.S. agricultural land base and accounted for losses, processing conversions, livestock feed needs, suitability of land for crops or grazing, and land productivity. Annual per capita land requirements ranged from 0.13 to 1.08 ha person-1 year-1 across the ten diet scenarios. Carrying capacity varied from 402 to 807 million persons; 1.3 to 2.6 times the 2010 U.S. population. Carrying capacity was generally higher for scenarios with less meat and highest for the lacto-vegetarian diet. However, the carrying capacity of the vegan diet was lower than two of the healthy omnivore diet scenarios. Sensitivity analysis showed that carrying capacity estimates were highly influenced by starting assumptions about the proportion of cropland available for cultivated cropping. Population level dietary change can contribute substantially to meeting future food needs, though ongoing agricultural research and sustainable management practices are still needed to assure sufficient production levels.

1. Introduction

1.1 Relationships between diet and sustainability
One of the most perplexing questions in sustainability science is, “What should we eat?” Within the food and agriculture literature, a strong case has been presented that dietary change is essential for meeting future human food needs (McMichael et al., 2007; Pelletier and Tyedmers, 2010; Godfray et al., 2010; Foley et al., 2011; Smith et al., 2013). By “dietary change,” these authors refer to eating patterns that stabilize, or decrease, livestock production, keep food system environmental impacts within ecosystem limits, and more equitably distribute food to meet global nutritional goals.

This line of thinking is not new. The equation I=PAT, conceived in the 1970s, proposes that environmental impact is a function of population, affluence, and technology (Parris and Kates, 2003). Calls for considering the environmental impacts of food consumption through changes in diet were made decades ago both in popular (Lappé, 1971) and academic literature (Gussow and Clancy, 1986). However, for most of the 20th Century the predominant agricultural science paradigm focused on increasing yield and production efficiency, expanding in the 1980s and 1990s to include ecological impacts of farming but not focusing on food systems (Welch and Graham, 1999). Likewise, nutritional sciences and dietary advice over most of the past century have been guided almost exclusively by evidence on the relationships among nutrients, foods, diets and human health (King, 2007). If strategies for sustainability must address both food consumption and production, then analyses that link agriculture and nutrition are needed.

1.2 Land as a fundamental resource
The food system exerts a broad range of ecological impacts. Biodiversity loss, climate-forcing emissions, nutrient cycle disruption, and competition for land, water, and energy are all cited as reasons to contain agriculture’s environmental impact (Godfray et al., 2010; Foley et al., 2011). Among these impacts, land use is central. Sparing land from conversion to agriculture may be important for protecting biodiversity (Balmford et al., 2005; Lambin and Meyfroidt, 2011). In addition, as highlighted in debates about the merits of biofuels, conversion of native grassland or forest to agriculture causes carbon emissions (Fargione et al., 2008; Searchinger et al., 2008). Both issues provide persuasive arguments against expanding land under cultivation. Yet agricultural yields are not on track to meet projected global increases in food demand (Ray et al., 2013). Potential (and probable) increased demand for bioenergy or carbon sequestration further confounds the land conversion question (Smith et al., 2013). Given all the challenges, understanding the impact of dietary patterns on land use is critically important.


If Our Small Farms are Allowed to Wither, the Whole Nation Will Suffer

Author: Patrick Holden

Last week, smallholders took direct action over supermarkets’ failure to pay them a fair price. Here, a dairy farmer warns that their demise will deprive the country of skills that we can ill afford to lose.

Conservationists tell us about the extinction of wildlife, but there is another more insidious extinction going on right now – the disappearance of traditional dairy farmers, who have supplied our nation’s milk for generations. As each demoralised farmer quietly gives up and goes out of milk – and there are nearly two a day being forced out right now – a precious and irreplaceable part of our national heritage is lost forever. The Prince of Wales is absolutely right to be highlighting the plight of small family farms in general and dairy farms in particular.

These farmers form the backbone of the rural economy. By their very existence, they play a crucial role in maintaining our countryside. They are the stewards of our landscapes, field boundaries and hedgerows, the guardians of the fertility of the soils, the pastures, biodiversity and the ancient green lanes for herding the cattle in to be milked. As each farm disappears, the skills  of the stockmen are also lost and will be difficult or impossible to replace. These are all priceless elements of our natural and cultural capital.

The reason I feel particularly passionate about this is because I am a dairy farmer myself. I was milking my dairy herd of 80 cows in West Wales on Thursday afternoon when I got a call asking me to write this piece. I am in a lucky position compared with most milk producers, since although we have been receiving less than the cost of production for our milk for a number of years, we have managed to stay in business, partly because we benefit from a modest premium for being organic and also because we are now adding value to our milk by making cheese. I also have a day job, the salary from which goes to shore up any losses.

However, for the majority of UK family dairy farmers, who do not enjoy these privileges, the relentless decline in milk prices has finally driven them into taking direct action, albeit in a less militant fashion than their French counterparts. In doing so, they may not realise that, ironically, they are up against a deeply entrenched orthodoxy in British food and farming circles, shared even by those who claim to represent them. The orthodoxy goes something like this: in an industrial age where reductionist science and global markets rule, we must accept that in farming and food production, as with every other industry, we will be at the mercy of global trade, fluctuating market prices and cycles of boom and bust.


Four Important Lessons from Cuba’s Urban Food Survival Strategy

Author: Aurel Keller

Cuba has come a long way since the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the loss of imports crucial for the island nation’s industrial agriculture system—such as chemical pesticides and fertilizers—left Cuba with a severe food crisis in the 1990s. Today, Cuba has become a regional leader in sustainable agricultural research. Within its practices and institutions lies a model for localized and small-scale urban agriculture.

With the loss of the Soviet market, which had imported sugar at subsidized prices, and the fall of global sugar prices in the late 1980s, sugar monoculture production in Cuba collapsed. Out of necessity, Cuba underwent a social, scientific, and economic push toward self-sufficiency. This shift required radical change for the authoritarian communist state as desperation and cooperation drove innovation in sustainable agriculture and urban farming. Although Cuba’s successes relied on country-specific policy adoptions and favorable geographic conditions, the country’s scientific frameworks and practices are widely applicable in other regions.

Reforms Propelled by the Government

Cuba’s success hinged on the adoption of Article 27 of the constitution in 1992, which recognized the state’s innate duty to ensure the sustainable use of resources and to protect the nation’s environment and people. The Cuban state and the Ministry of Agriculture instituted austerity measures, re-adjusting priorities and resources into support roles. State companies in many sectors became employee-owned co-ops, and small-farm distribution programs were greatly expanded. Realizing the need to meet the population’s basic food needs with limited resources, funding for agricultural research infrastructure was expanded to optimize low-input, small-scale farming. The government stepped back from direct management and worked with grassroots organizations and co-ops to provide support through extensive research partnerships to optimize and spread beneficial practices.

Grassroots Organizations and Co-ops Were Key

Grassroots organizations—representing small-scale farmers, animal producers, and agricultural and forest technicians—became essential in forming cooperatives and spreading services and education in Cuba. The small farmer organization, ANAP, has been active since the 1980s, working with farmers and the government to teach beneficial practices and create farmer’s cooperatives—groups of farmers who combine their resources and create employee-owned businesses that provide production, credit, and service assistance. Initially slow, the spread of farm co-ops grew once President Fidel Castro recognized their benefits, with official support commencing in 1987, and picked up speed as land-distribution and support programs expanded. Working with agricultural research outposts and universities, ANAP was instrumental in facilitating the extensive spread of research extension programs through its network, as well as propagating resulting improvements. Many peasant farmers were members of ANAP and participated in co-ops, successful to the point of producing 60 percent of produce on 25 percent of worked land in 2003.