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The Utopian Dinner Table: How to Feed the World in 100 Years

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The Utopian Dinner Table: How to Feed the World in 100 Years

Nearly 10 percent of people are food insecure, meaning they don’t have reliable access to affordable, nutritious food. And in 50 years, the world population will likely peak, but the demand for food will nearly double. How will we accommodate the demand? This episode explores possible solutions to working around the industrial food system, from cultivating urban community farms to overthrowing the system entirely, breaking dependence from an industry that deepens disparities in access to food.

This program originally aired on CBC’s Ideas.  Photo courtesy of blackcreekfarm.ca.

Transcript Below.

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Featuring:

  • Leticia Deawuo – Director of Black Creek Community Farm;
  • Mildred Agsaoay – runs the Mom’s Program, along with participants Marlina Rodrigues and Maria Pagi
  • Evan Fraser of CBC program, Ideas
  • Raj Patel – Raj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist and academic. He is a Research Professor in the Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and a Senior Research Associate at the Unit for the Humanities at the university currently known as Rhodes University (UHURU), South Africa.  He is also the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, and A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, co-written with Jason W Moore. 

Credits:

  • Reporter: Evan Fraser
  • Producer: Nikola Luksic
  • This program originally aired on CBC’s Ideas.
  • Making Contact Staff:
  • This week’s host and engineer: Aysha Choudhary
  • Executive Director: Lisa Rudman
  • Staff Producers: Monica Lopez, Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani
  • Outreach and Audience Engagement Coordinator: Kathryn Styer

Music

  • In order of appearance:
  • Ketsa – Where We Are
  • Ketsa – Nature Shuffle
  • Ketsa – Awakenings
  • Tom Hillock – 2stepy (Kapagama Production Music Germany)
  • Pictures of the Floating World – A Day at the Park

TRANSCRIPT

Aysha Choudhary: I’m Aysha Choudhary, and this is Making Contact…

Raj Patel : What’s it going to be like a hundred years from now? What are people going to find in the grocery store? And my response is, well, why should we have a grocery store? “

 Mildred Agsaoay “Food brings communities together from planting to harvesting to cooking.” 

Aysha  In this episode, we’ll hear about ongoing food insecurity issues from food scholar Raj Patel, and hopeful solutions from families in the Black Creek community garden in Toronto.

Hey, …you know that feeling right before lunch time?…those untimely rumblings when you can almost feel the enzymes digesting the lining of your stomach? you can probably go ahead and grab a quick bite to eat. Or maybe you can’t…I recently learned about a pop-up food pantry held for students at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California who self-identify as food “insecure.”  In one of the United State’s wealthiest towns, hundreds of students and their families receive about 150 pounds of food each month. And they’re not alone. 

In April of 2019, a national survey revealed that 45% of college students reported they were food insecure.

And even though cities like Houston, D.C., San Francisco, and Kansas City are pouring millions into programs to end hunger, the problem is only getting worse. The fact remains: 1 in 9 people in the US struggle with hunger and more broadly, 10 percent of the world. And in few decades…

RajPatel  those who are unable to eat now will continue to be unable to afford to eat. Uh, and at the same time, the pressures to generate profit from the food industry, uh, will be such, uh, as to generate the kinds of massive externality that the food industry has generated since its inception.

Um, so with a mixture of, of climate change. And, uh, the already, the sort of forces of inequality present in the food system. Um, we’re going to see more of the same, uh, yet worse. 

Aysha: That’s a pretty dire prediction from food scholar Raj Patel. And we’ll hear more from him later in the show. But first, we’re going to visit a community that presents a more hopeful view of what the future of food may look like. Thanks to our friends at the The Canadian Broadcasting Company, and their radio show “Ideas,” we can tag along with food security expert Evan Fraser:  

 

Evan Fraser:

Driving along the traffic packed four lane city streets near Jane and Finch and Toronto. You would never guess that a flourishing 8 acre farm is tucked away just behind a gate. 

 

Leticia Deawoo: Um, my name is Leticia Deawoo and I’m the director at the Black Creek community farm. The Black Creek neighborhood is known as the poorest neighborhood in the whole city of Toronto, but then we also have the largest urban agriculture in that same community.

 

The farm is a community project. Volunteers are given plots of land. They can cultivate themselves and volunteers also harvest fresh organic fruits, vegetables and herbs that are sold at affordable prices. So growing up in this neighborhood, of course, fresh produce is not one of the, the first things that you is easily accessible.

 

There is a fast food in every corner, right? You can find McDonald’s, you can find KFC, pizza, pizza, Pizza  Nova. I can go to Ming Shawi and get a meal for $3, but it’s very greasy rice with greasy chicken, right? So, um unhealthy food is very cheap, and the actual fresh produce, including milk that we need are more expensive and not so easily accessible and not.

 

So if you have parents that are poor, of course they’re going to go for the things that they put up front in our community, in our grocery stores, right? So if it’d be Mac and cheese. That’s always on sale, right? Um, if it be whatever, like all the process on healthy foods are on sale and cheaper to purchase.

 

And if families, the only jobs they have access to is factory jobs and temp jobs, ( and there’s like over a hundred temp agencies just surrounded this community alone), if that’s what people have access to umin terms of work. Then you can already tell in terms of, you know, the social determinants on health, where you live sort of impacts–where you eat, which then impacts your overall health as well.

 

So it’s no surprise that our community faces multiple, health challenges like diabetes, blood, high blood pressure, high cholesterol.

 

Mildred Agsaoay:  There’s strawberries. there’s like, interesting tomatillo and ground cherries this is like an edible garden bed. 

 

Evan: The farm isn’t just about breaking dependence on cheaper unhealthier foods by providing fresh, affordable produce. It is also driven by the idea that community gardening builds relationships and connect city dwellers to the land in a profound way.

 

Mildred : Food brings communities together from planting to harvesting to cooking. My name is Mildred Agsaoay and I’m a resident here in black Creek now neighborhood. I started the moms program.

 

—little childLet me see. Butterfly, butterflies…

 

Evan: The mom’s program takes place every week of the growing season. Mothers are encouraged to bring their kids to the farm, to grow food from seed to harvest. 

 

Midred: Yeah. Well, you’re building like, um, skills in the mom’s and you’re building skills in the children. 

 

Marlene: Uh, my name is Marlina and I’m busy. I’m from India and I had been here like around eight years.

Yeah. Like coming here and experiencing in the farm here, like the skills, we can take it anywhere in the world. Wherever you go, you can start growing up your own crops, like own vegetables. It may be a garden or a farm yard, or you have a plot that’s just left vacant you can use it. It’s not just here, like anywhere you go, you can do this.

You’ll just remembered it for lifetime. 

 

Evan: And it’s not just the idea of acquiring tools to be self sufficient. The community gardeners say the vegetables they grow have an exceptional quality and taste.

 

Maria Pagilla:  I’m Maria and I came from. The Philippines, the Northern part of the Philippines, and now I’m living here in Toronto.

 

I’ve known from my childhood, like the difference between the newly picked fruits, the newly picked vegetables. I know the difference. So I wanted to taste that taste again and I want to see like that plant grow and eat it, like fresh. I want to feel like that ( I don’t know what feelings that)  joy, like of harvesting and farming cause that’s what I experienced during my childhood time.

I want to instill that one. This one in the mind of my kids. Do I want them to do it too.

 

Evan: There’s a real emphasis on local and organic at the black Creek farm and Mildred who runs the moms program sees local urban, organic farming as a key to food security in the future.

 

 Maria: In terms of, um, food security if we rely on our own, um, local production.

 

So then it’s not dependent on like if the fluctuating prices of oil. Yeah. They said like, um, if the city shuts down and we lose food, it only, we only able to survive for three days. Imagine if we’re able to like, um, access our own backyard green spaces and produce our own food. We’ll be able to like, be self sufficient in some way.

 

Aysha: The growing trend of urban community farms like the one in Black Creek, Toronto represents a local shift away from reliance on industrial agriculture and towards a more personal, nurturing relationship with food that is nutritious, and accessible. We’ll have more in a moment.

 

Break:  You’re listening to Making Contact. If you missed any of this episode you can listen on demand at radioproject.org, where you’ll also find out more about our podcast. Visit radioproject.org. 

 

This week we’re sharing material from the CBC program Ideas and asking: What exactly does the future of food look like? In 50 years, the world population will likely peak, but the demand for food will nearly double. How will we accommodate the demand? To explore that, Evan Fraser sat down with Raj Patel.

 

SEGMENT 2: 

Ra Patel: My name’s Raj Patel. I’m the author of stuffed and starved, and I’m a research professor at the University of Texas at Austin. 

 

Evan: I’ve been reading articles and books by Raj Patel for pretty much my entire career. Probably his best known book is the one he mentions called Stuffed and Starved, the Hidden Battle for the World Food System. And in it he asks why there is still global hunger in a world with so much abundance. He has degrees from Oxford, the London school of economics and Cornell. He has both worked for and protested against the world bank and the world trade organization.

 

By zeroing in on the extremes between the haves and the have nots, Raj calls for nothing short of a system wide revolution, so we can ensure global food security well into the next century. 

 

If global food production remains the same, what challenges do you think will be confronting a hundred years from now?

 

Raj: We’ll be confronting the same problems that we have today, where already we live in a world where, uh, over 800 million people are malnourished and we live in a world where nearly 2 billion people are overweight. Uh, those are the trends that we’re experiencing right now and with climate change bearing down on us, uh, and with the way that we distribute food being through the market.

 

uh, that means that as climate change makes its presence felt yet more forcefully, food prices will rise, and those who are unable to eat now will continue to be unable to afford to eat. Uh, and at the same time, the pressures to generate profit from the food industry, uh, will be such as to generate the kinds of massive externality that the food industry has generated since its inception.

 

So with a mixture of, of climate change. And, uh, the, the, the already, the, the, the sort of forces of inequality present in the food system. Um, we’re going to see more of the same, uh, yet worse. 

 

Evan: So make this real for us in terms of the person living in a typical North American city a hundred years from now, what, what, what, what’s their life gonna be like.

 

Raj: Well, it depends, isn’t it? I mean, if you’re rich, you will be able to eat whatever it is that money can buy. And if you are not, then either we will be dependent on, uh, cheap calories manufactured through whatever’s the novel technologies there are, —, or hunger. And, uh, I mean, I think that, you know, as, we get used to the new normal, this,  summer across the world has been a rather terrifying time.

 

But depending on where you are in North America, you will be striving to be able to access food and cooling and shelter and, uh, you know, decent sources of fresh water. At the same time as again, if you’re, if you’re wealthy, you’ll be doing just fine. So we’ve been pessimistic for a second.

 

Evan: Let’s get optimistic. But, but still realistic. Give us a hopeful vision for a hundred years from now. What will change in how we produce food, what we eat, what’s, what’s the, what’s a hopeful future to look like. Well, I mean, again, it depends on not on how it is that we grow food, but how it is that we distribute it.

 

Raj: It depends on the social systems that we find ourselves in. Uh, it’s entirely possible that we move towards a diet that’s more local and seasonal, and, uh, that is part of an archipelago of Urban and peri-urban farms designed to not only survive climate change, but also to mitigate it.

 

Um, but that means a, a diet that looks rather different from today. It’s, it’s certainly much less meat heavy. It’s much more seasonal and it varies depending on where you are in North America. 

 

Evan: So if we don’t change our ways, your seeing a future that is fraught with chaos, income, inequality, poverty, that sort of thing.

 

Raj: Just to be clear, I’m seeing a future that is much like the present. Uh, I’m seeing a future that, uh, looks rather like the world of, of desperate inequality in which we find ourselves now. What does the future look like when it’s not like this? Um, well, it requires a fundamental transformation away from capitalism.

 

And it’s worth talking about that I think, um, the way that we distribute food, as I said, is, is through the market. And the market has some very simple rules. If you’re able to afford to eat, you can eat what you like. And if you’re not able to afford to eat, you go hungry or you get, you know, the sort of cheapest food that’s available, that’s usually obesogenic.

 

A world that isn’t like that requires the ending of industrial agriculture and the corporations that profit from it. But let’s be clear, there is no such thing as a sustainable industrial agriculture system. Now, to back that up I present as exhibit A, a report that I was pointed to by one of the vice presidents of sustainability at Nestle, and this report was put together by a, those anarchists KPMG, (smiles). In 2012, I believe, KPMG did an analysis of a range of industries and looked, uh, using very conservative measures at the footprint of these industries and compared it to the revenue that these industries generated. And so you can tell that these assumptions are very conservative because even the oil and gas industries revenues were much higher than its environmental footprint.

 

But the food industry was different. Even with the most conservative, uh, assumptions. The food industry’s footprint in terms of environmental externalities was 224% of its revenue. 

 

Now, for folks that were not familiar with that, that means that although the amount of money churning through the food industry was $80 billion, I believe, um, the footprint of that was 224% all of that, and that means that there’s no profitable way of running the food industry and doing right by the environment, let alone doing right by society. 

 

Evan: Okay. So I have to, I have to push it just for a second. There no such thing as healthy industrial agriculture. You just said that I, I need to, I need to give you an opportunity to unpack that a little more for us.

 

Raj: Right.  So if you look at, um, the assumptions that KPMG were using, what they were looking at is the environmental footprint, the carbon footprint, uh, looking at nitrous oxide emissions and a range of other externalities that the food industry produces. And if you look at the 2012 report (and a copy of that’s on my website), you’ll find that what that means is that the industry itself is very, very practiced at not paying it’s or not internalizing its full environmental cost. So the footprint of the industrial food system is much bigger than the amount of money that passes through that industrial food system. 

 

In other words, the industry is very good at making other people pick up the environmental tab for that profits.

 

Evan: So you’re, you’re talking about some pretty major social, political, economic, structural changes, and these aren’t just local changes you’re talking about. You’re talking about changes at a global scale. So I have to ask you, how realistic is, the vision you’re laying out for us. 

 

Raj: Um, well, I mean, I, it depends on the limits one puts on one’s imagination.

 

You might ask, well, all right, what’s it going to be like a hundred years from now? What are people going to find in the grocery store? And my response is, well, why should we have a grocery store? The, the patent for the first supermarket is 101 years old. That’s all. And It would be foolish for us not to be able to try to imagine a world that’s different from the one we find ourselves in.

 

Not only because we do ourselves a disservice, disservice by, you know, by being able to imagine the end of the world, but not being able to imagine the end of capitalism. But also because the industrial food system itself is a massive driver of ecological transformation. 

 

And so if we can’t imagine a world without destroying the foundations of the life on which we depend. Um, then we all very literally going to be rendering not only most of the planet extinct, but ourselves as well. 

 

MUSIC  

 

Aysha: That’s author Raj Patel and you’re listening to Making Contact. For more information, visit our website at radioproject.org. In today’s show we bring you material from the CBC radio show IDEAS. Now, back to food security experts Raj Patel and Evan Fraser on capitalism and the future of food.

 

Evan: So in, in previous lectures, I’ve heard you say that most consumers have lost agency and ability to feed themselves. Is that a fair characterization of what you’ve said in the past, and, could you reflect on that for us. 

 

Raj: Well, I mean, I certainly think that when we go into a supermarket, it may feel like everything there is made for us. But in fact, the opposite is the case. We are made to consume the things that are in the supermarket.

 

We have been bullied and marketed to and seduced into thinking that most of the stuff in that supermarket is food. When really it’s just , as Michael Pollan puts it, an edible food like substance. Um, but most of the food in supermarkets that’s processed in one way or another or ultra processed

um, is mad! And you know, 200, 300, 400 years ago, um, the fact that we’d be opening a plastic container and popping whatever it is, it’s in there, into our mouth, uh, would have seemed just absurd and wrong in so many ways. 

 

Uh, so in so far as we are not free to eat locally and sustainably, uh, in ways that respect workers and respect the ecology around us, most of us can’t afford to do that.  Um, no matter what country you’re in the poorest 20% of the population are unable to afford five fresh fruits and vegetables a day. Uh, now that should give us pause, right? I mean, if we’re just trying to, uh, exercise basic agency, basic freedom to be able to eat just fresh fruits and vegetables, and a 20% of us can’t afford to do it. That doesn’t seem like freedom to me. 

 

Uh, and if you are trying to just feed your family well here in North America, uh, and you want to be able to afford to again to do it properly in ways that respect the workers, the respect to the soil that respect, uh, the ecology of which we are part then again it doesn’t seem to be possible unless you’re earning a great deal of money. And so if we are only as free as we are, we are rich. Uh, then 99% of us really aren’t free at all. 

 

Evan: Raj Patel also makes the case that gender equality goes hand in hand with food security.

 

Raj:  I happen to think that gender equality is one of the most powerful technologies there is.

 

If you look at how it is that we’re going to end malnutrition, in the future, let’s look at how India has done it. It’s not been through whizzbang new seeds or packaging technology. It’s been through things like good sanitation, better access to medical services, water supply, better access to non- staple and non-staple crops, and most of all gender equality and sending girls to secondary school. These are powerful technologies for ending hunger. 

 

Evan:  Okay. So can you explain for us or unpack for us a little bit more the relationship between gender inequality and agriculture? 

 

Raj: If one looks at hunger, say, in the United States, the part of the population that’s most likely to be food insecure  are single female headed households.

 

And that’s not surprising. Again, the way that hunger works is because of an inadequacy and insufficiency of power to be able to control your diet and the world around you. That inequality in power is something that’s absolutely the story of patriarchy. If you want to understand how important gender is to thinking about modern agriculture, um, there’s a fantastic paper, um, in the quarterly review of economics called on the origins of gender inequality, uh, women and the plow. https://www.nber.org/papers/w17098

 

And what some of these colleagues have looked at is around 200 years of economic data looking at gender inequality and looking at wage differentials. And what they find is that if you strip out things like income levels of countries, one of the things that is a persistent predictor of inequality is whether there’s a plow or not, um, as part of traditional agriculture. And you make, well, the question is, well, what does a plow got to do with anything?

 

Well a plow is a technology that requires an accompanying social technology. A plow doesn’t make sense unless you’ve got private property to be able to plow. And plow doesn’t make sense if you, unless you’ve kicked off the indigenous people who were pastoralists, for example. Um, a plow doesn’t make sense unless you’ve got sedentary agriculture and you’re growing, not just a, a sort of mix of crops for yourself, but crops for the market.

 

And so a plow accompanies capitalist agriculture hand in glove. And that has everything to do with gender and equality because with the advent of private property, you foreclose other ways of using the land. In England, for example, uh, ways of using the land that predate a private property in agriculture are the commons.

 

On the commons, in England, for instance,  women were able to run dairy herds. And dairying was one of the ways in which women and men’s inequality was lessened. But the minute you take the commons out of agriculture women’s possibility of income from agriculture drops away. 

 

And so the minute you prioritize land for the plow is the minute that, women’s wage rates plummet, And that’s how you see the start of differentials or, or the exacerbation of differentials in wage rates between women and men. And so if you want to understand how modern agriculture is implicated in gender inequality, um, look to the plow. In fact, there’s a saying attributes to the prophet Muhammad that, no sooner does a plow enter the home, than does misery as well. 

 

Evan: So doesn’t, aren’t there ways of, of community owning equipment that would, that would. Readdress some of these power imbalances you’re talking about?

 

Raj: but it’s not the, you can’t blame the plow for gender inequality. The plow is a sign of a social system.

 

Imagine we blew up every plow. –we took all our ploughshares and turn them back into guns. Um, would that end gender inequality? Of course it wouldn’t because we would still have private property in land. We would still have the chains that reach from the, uh, the, the field through the commodity exchanges,through the large industrial agricultural corporations to the supermarkets, to the consumer. 

 

The plow isn’t the problem. The plow is a sign of a social system, and so you can’t fix gender inequality without addressing that social system. The plow is a convenient sort of signifier of how that system works. Um, but we can’t possibly think of just you know, if we all shared our plow, wouldn’t everything be awesome because we’d still have all the other accoutrements and other, all the other forces of inequality that the modern food system has bequeathed us. And that has made us think in the ways that we do. 

 

Evan:  So let’s, let’s go from the plow to new technologies, technologies that are just now being developed, genetically modified organisms, precision agriculture, drones, satellites.

What, what role did those sort of technologies have, and how do they play within your vision of the future? 

 

Raj: Well, I mean, I, I’ve talked to, um, I, I know you have as well. I have talked to many farmers who use these, um, crops. I, I’m related to some of them. Um, and it’s very interesting to me that, for example, farmers who are using — Roundup ready crops, for example– find it incredibly useful to use these crops because farmers are paid so abysmally that what Roundup ready crops allows them to do is have vast areas under cultivation, and they can pay someone to spray the crops while they go out and get a second job.

 

And these crops work very well within a social system in which farmers barely make it, you know, barely make it by.  If we were to transform the social system, the crops would have to be rather different. These technologies would have to be rather different. 

 

And if we were to incorporate the full environmental and social costs associated with the spraying of  these agricultural chemicals, if we were to incorporate the full social and ecological costs of what it is that accompanies a large scale industrial agriculture, then these technologies would not look so efficient. 

 

The sort of trick of “efficiency” is to squeeze away all that, the long, and in some case, short term social costs and hide them beneath the magic number of yield. Like “these are the bushels that we get out of the ground. Uh, and everything else. Uh, you know the water costs or the longterm environmental costs or the, you know the healthcare costs, all of that is someone else’s a problem —-we managed to goose up the yield. Isn’t that wonderful?”

 

Um, so. I’m in favor of technology. I love technology. I just am not convinced that the kinds of technology we need other ones that are going to be patentable. 

 

I think that the, some very exciting technology is being investigated and explored in India at the moment where farmers are sharing, developing new, uh, patterns of polyculture and sharing new and developing new  kinds of seeds and new kinds of patterns of agriculture that don’t rely on industrial chemistry, but rely instead on very, very sophisticated, very scientifically informed, ways of managing an ecology so that they can not only sequester carbon, but manage pest load, uh, increase yields of, uh, not just cereal crops, but vegetables and fiber crops and crops for wood and for medicine as well.

 

So I think. Yeah. Balancing these very complex equations for the sorts of things we need from the land, uh, means turning away from the, the kind of Monomania, that industrial agriculture enforces on us. Uh, and to embrace a broader view of technology than, uh, than perhaps our patent lawyers would like us to see.

 

Evan: So, so just so I understand. Are you suggesting we completely abandon our modern agricultural systems in order to thrive into the future?

 

Raj:  I’m suggesting we abandoned the agricultural of the 20th century. I think that it worked for as long as we lived in a period where climate change wasn’t making itself felt too badly, where we could pump a massive amounts of fertilizer into the, you know, and use fossil fuels to generate fertilizer as if it didn’t matter as if there were no consequences to that.

 

Uh, I think that it would be precipitous– I mean, I think we’d be massively stupid — to carry on, uh, with the agriculture of the 20th century in the 21st when the climate is very different.  I don’t think that you’re saying we should, uh, embrace an agricultural system that’s over a hundred years old in a world that’s radically different from the one in which it was conceived.

 

So I, I, I’m, I’m suggesting that we need new ways of. Using knowledge and developing knowledge and sharing knowledge for the 21st century. I absolutely think we need technology. I’m just, I’m just not convinced that it’s the sort of technology that, um, you know, seed companies or chemical companies, insist that it must be. 

 

Evan: Raj Patel, thank you very much. 

 

Raj: Thank you. Evan.

 

 

Aysha:

{ That was global food security expert Evan Frasier, interviewing Raj Patel who is a research professor at the University of Texas Austin and author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.  —- Cultivating community farms or dismantling industrial agriculture and capitalism…these visions of the future might leave you hungry for more information {smile}.  So be sure to check out Making Contact’s additional articles and resources at radioproject.org. Join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter,  and subscribe to the Making Contact podcast. }

 

This episode’s material was courtesy of the CBC Radio show, IDEAS, produced by Nikola Luksic. — This is Making Contact  and radioproject.org. The Making Contact team includes Lisa Rudman, Salima Hamirani, Anita Johnson, Monica Lopez, and Dylan Heuer. I’m Aysha Choudhary, thanks for listening to Making Contact. 

 

Author: Radio Project

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