Local food, global hunger

I wasn’t sure a panel at the University of Minnesota this afternoon was going to be of much use for me as Ground Level begins to explore the growing local food movement in Minnesota. After all, the title of the panel was “Sustainably Feeding the World” and it featured the leaders of three international food research organizations from three continents.

But it’s useful, as Minnesota communities talk about farmers markets, community gardens, farm-to-school programs and buying local at the supermarket or the co-op, to be reminded of the global challenge.

It’s huge.

The three researchers — Carlos Seré, who leads the International Livestock Research Institute, based in Nairobi, Kenya; Shenggen Fan, of the International Food Policy Research Institute, based in Washington, D;C., and Ruben Echeverria, of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, based in Cali, Colombia — painted the picture pretty simply:

In 40 years, when the world’s population is expected to plateau, there will be 9 billion mouths in the world. Given that more than a billion people are considered hungry right now, the assumption is that we’ll need to produce more food, maybe 70 percent more.

Making the problem harder are a variety of challenges — water shortages, global warming, rising standards of living in developing countries that will raise demand for food.

What came clear from all three of the research directors was that much of the answer will depend on small producers.

The world’s food producers are, by and large, small landholders, and they will be the keys to solving hunger shortages, through using better seed and finding better practices. That may be a quite different question than selling beef or potatoes to the affluent at a downtown Minneapolis farmers market. But somehow it seems that local might answer a bigger question than we thought.

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