Global Food Systems Talk Set for Sept. 11 at Kansas State University

Jason Clay, the senior vice president for markets and food at the World Wildlife Fund, will be the featured speaker for the Henry C. Gardiner Global Food Systems lecture September 11 at Kansas State University.

Clay’s talk, ‘Feeding the World: Sustaining the Planet,’ is scheduled for 7 p.m. at McCain Auditorium. Admission is free.

Kansas State University established the Henry C. Gardiner Global Food Systems lecture in 2015 to provide science-based education about world food issues. The series allows students, faculty, staff and Kansas citizens to interact with U.S. and international food industry leaders on topics of current interest.

Past speakers have included Robert Fraley of Monsanto, Greg Page of Cargill, and Jay Famiglietti of the University of California-Irvine.

The lecture series is funded by the Gardiner family of Ashland, Kansas. Henry C. Gardiner, who passed away just before the first lecture in 2015, was known as a visionary leader who dedicated his career to improving the beef industry through science and technology.

Clay has previously operated a family farm, taught at Harvard and Yale, worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and spent more than 35 years working with non-governmental organizations.

He is the author of 20 books and is National Geographic’s first Food and Sustainability Fellow and won the James Beard award in 2012 for his work on sustainable food.

The World Wildlife Fund is considered one of the world’s leading conservation organizations, working in 100 countries and supporting 5 million members globally. According to its website, its mission is “to conserve nature and reduce the most pressing threats to the diversity of life on Earth.”

Clay recently answered some questions about his work and the message he plans to bring to Kansas State University in September:

Kansas State University: Please talk specifically about your work on global food sustainability. What is it, and why is it important?

Clay: Over the past 20 years or so, the World Wildlife Fund has come to realize that the largest threat to our mission – the protection of biodiversity and ecosystem services – is from the production of food, and specifically where and how we produce it.

Food production has always been the biggest human impact on the planet, but going forward with more people, more per capita income, and increased per capita consumption, the impacts will only increase. In fact, if we do nothing differently we will need to produce twice as much food to meet the increased demand by 2050.

So the question is how do we produce more with less land, water and other inputs. Agricultural sprawl is the biggest threat to biodiversity. We need to find ways to intensify production, but do it sustainably. 

Some think that companies are primarily to blame for negative impacts to the environment. How true is that? And in the bigger picture, what needs to be done to reduce environmental impact due to food production?

Producing food globally is certainly the largest impact on the environment. But the impacts are not directly from companies. If you look at land and water use, habitat conversion, greenhouse gas emissions and more, companies account for less than 10 percent of impacts, often less than five. In fact, most research suggests that the biggest impacts from food do not happen with companies. Rather, they occur during the production of primary products.

However, companies can help drive change by working with their suppliers up the value chain to address the most critical impacts. This could be by reducing habitat conversion (for example, deforestation or plowing of grasslands) or reducing water use and increasing efficiency.

Companies could also focus more on food waste, illegality in production and making consumption more sustainable.

We waste a third or more of food produced in every country in the world. Companies could help reduce food waste by reducing the volume of products in the packages they sell as well as how they speak with consumers about more sustainable consumption.

Illegality in food production is an important global issue. Our research suggests that as much as half of food traded globally is not produced legally in the country of origin. In the U.S., the biggest domestic issue with illegality in production is undocumented workers. It is estimated that half of agricultural laborers in the U.S. are not legal. If that is the case, than about half of our production may be produced illegally as well.

But the biggest issue going forward will be consumption and the impact it has on renewable natural resources, forests, grasslands and water – but especially on soil. There is an end in sight for population growth, but that is not the case for consumption. There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for consumption, but we all have to be more thoughtful about it, more conscious of our choices and their impacts.

Are there steps that we, as individuals, should be taking to take better care of the environment? Maybe there are best management practices?

Everyone can reduce food waste. This is a no-brainer. We can’t eliminate it entirely, but we can certainly cut it in half. No one is in favor of food waste, but all of us waste it.

I don’t know anyone that is actually in favor of illegality in food production, either, but the issue is not so simple. Still, we can express our concern and work to find political solutions to these issues. Illegality and enforcement are, after all, the role of government.

As we go forward, however, we need to focus more on results and metrics. That is why World Wildlife Fund supports collaborations like the Forest Stewardship Council, Field to Market, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, and the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative. We can identify the practices that help us get better, but the end goal is the result, not the practice. And, to double production by 2050 without using more land, water or other inputs, we will need to focus on continuous improvement.

There are no best practices, but there are a lot of better ones, and some work better for some producers than others. Think of it this way: Today’s better practice will be tomorrow’s norm and the practice we are trying to eliminate the day after.

As we look to the future and the availability of safe, nutritious food, what should people understand in terms of how caring for the environment affects food security in the world?

We only have one planet. We are already living beyond the carrying capacity using today’s production systems. Yet, we know that if nothing changes we need to produce twice as much, per capita, by 2050. Doing that will require profound changes in what we do and how we do it.

Soil is at the heart of sustainability for food. Globally, we have lost half of our topsoil in the last 150 years. We have got to shift from mining the soil, to using it better and rebuilding organic matter, soil carbon and soil profiles. Sustainability and food security is all about the soil.

On a finite planet, trade is critical to sustainability. We need to produce items where they can be produced more sustainably and with fewer overall impacts and ship them to the places where there is demand but it would be inefficient to produce them. For example, the U.S. could produce coffee, tea, cocoa, orange juice and bananas, but it is more efficient to produce them elsewhere and import them.

Eight countries dominate all of the cereal grain and oil-seed exports. Over time, we should see those exports shift to animal-protein exports so that all the manure and waste can be reintroduced to the soil in the production country rather than in places like China where it contributes to pollution and more red tides than any other country.

As you travel around the world, what are the food issues that concern you most?

The biggest environmental issues for me are habitat loss (forests and grasslands), water and soil health. Each is important. Generally, I think these issues are more or less understood, though finding ways to address them may not have been identified everywhere.

The biggest social issues are that most farmers are getting older, they don’t want their children to farm, and those children who do want to farm can’t afford to buy their parents or siblings out. And, others who want to farm but do not come from a farming family also face barriers to capital and land.

What impact has climate change had on food production?

As key parts of the world have become hotter and drier, water stress has increased, and resistance to disease has lessened. This has affected all crops. Perhaps most important is that with climate change, in the short-term, producers will have to work harder to maintain their previous levels of production. In the medium term (6-10 years) farmers will have to change genetics, change the crops they produce or both.

Tree crops have been affected most. In Central America, we have seen declines of coffee production by 20-50 percent in each country. And the best coffee land is 100 meters higher than it was 10-15 years ago. In West Africa, climate change has reduced cocoa production and made the plants more susceptible to disease.

But it isn’t just tree crops. Agriculture is shifting north. In 2016, the amount of prairie plowed in the U.S. and Canada was greater than the amount of deforestation in Brazil. By 2070, Iowa and Illinois are projected to be the leading cotton producing states in the U.S. And unless something changes, the heart of the corn belt will have shifted to the U.S./Canada border, where one of the four remaining intact temperate grasslands grows today.

How might farming be affected by climate change and emerging food issues?

We are seeing that in many places and for many crops, “business as usual” is now a stretch goal. We are not getting the consistent rains that we did in the past, aquifer water levels are not as high as they were, and the best time to plant is inconsistent.

It is no longer clear when to plant. Our genetic yield gains are not improving as quickly as we had predicted they would. Farmers may be taking too long before they realize that they need to shift crops or animals. But, in many parts of the world, farmers can’t just pick up and go to a place where they can continue to produce the crops they know.

A major challenge we face in our future is how to produce more food with less land. Can we really do that? If so, how?

We can certainly produce more with less. We have been doing it for centuries. People are very innovative. But I don’t think that everything has to come from the “produce more” side of the equation.

I think there are four ways to get to 2050 with room to spare. On the one hand we need to focus on efficiency and productivity. On the other we need to reduce waste and make consumption more sustainable.

Efficiency is about how we use inputs like water, pesticides, fertilizer and more.

Productivity is more about improving the soil and rehabilitating degraded land and tapping better genetics.

Reducing waste in half by 2050 would reduce the total amount of new food we would need to produce by 25 percent. We can do that. But we also need to shift consumption, make it more conscious and more sustainable.

No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. Each person’s strategy will be different. Think about it.