If the world is not a plate, but round, why not keep it round?

TH -WSFC Summer School's group eating Swiss carrots fresh picked from the field!

Plants are feeding the world and without (modern) agriculture the world could feed only 4 million people. But will we find the solution for feeding 9.5 billion people in 2050? It seems that intensifica­tion is not the answer, as enough food is produced globally, natural resources are getting scarcer and the current status of human food security is highly controversial: about 1 billion people are undernourished, 2 billion malnourished and 1.4 billion overnourished. We should focus on a more sustaina­ble management of the food system, improved distribution of food, awareness raising and more locally adapted solutions. Clear, but how can we bring all these issues together?

ETH Zürich - World Food System Centre
Summer School 2013, August 2013 at Gut Rheinau, a large organic farm in Switzerland.

The Summer School 2013 on Sus­tainable Agriculture and the World Food System brought together 24 young, motivated PhD and Master Students and graduates from 14 different countries, with different backgrounds and expertise, to try to understand the linkages of the world food system in an intercultural and interdisci­plinary way. The course consisted of lectures, facilitated workshops, discussions, field trips and case studies to show the high complexity of the world food system.  It used a comprehensive systems perspective to help these future leaders understand the challenges the system faces today and in the future. 

Whilst learning about different food system approaches and technical tools, the two weeks course was built from a holistic perspective. Together with about 20 experts, we worked on the food value chain -- from production to consumption -- and discussed in terms of agricul­tural production, agro ecosystems, environmental services, smallholder contexts, global change driv­ers, water consumption, policy options, animal-plant systems, sustainable supply chains, distribution and retail, food waste, consumer behaviour, nutrition and health etc.        

The world-wide increased exchange of national and cultural resources (globalization) makes the sys­tem not only more complex but also increases the need for exchange and skills in systems think­ing and analysis. Each intervention in the system has several impacts along the value chain, be it posi­tive or negative, and leaves behind not only winners but also losers. It is crucial that we understand the relationships between different systems and subsystems and the interactions and trade-offs in current food systems.

Climate change, land use change and biodiversity loss have large impacts on the earth’s system. Apparently over 75% of crop landraces have been lost, 75% of Indian rice production comes from 10 rice varieties (out of 30 000).  91% of US dairy cattle are a single breed (Holsteins). From 20’000 usable plants and 660 agricultural cultivated plants, globally, only 3 plants provide us with 56% of our calorie uptake: maize, rice and wheat.

We do not know the trade-off between biodiversity and intensification but we do know that produc­tivity was not that important in traditional systems. Traditional systems are based on species-rich systems; the aim is to grow oneself everything one needs and to grow for alternatives. On the con­trary, in modern production systems, we are not dependent on this diversity anymore (are we?!). And now we have a rapid turnover in cultivars and a reduced need for local adaptation (do we?!). It seems that modern production techniques allow us to have the whole production “under control” (does it?!).  

During the course it became clear that many things discussed are somehow relative, thus (almost) always scale and site specific. What is true for the Swiss flatland agriculture can be completely irrele­vant for the alpine region. It also became clear that there is never one clear solution to occurring problems; it is always a set of measurements that would have to be made.

“Eat less meat!” is an echo we hear everywhere. But this gives the best example of site specific rele­vance. In the Swiss pre-alpine region of “Entlebuch”, where traditionally farming consists mainly of livestock production for dairy and meat products, animal production has a totally different value. In this altitude (about 1000 metres above sea level), farmers do not have the possibility to grow crops, thus their livelihoods are completely dependent on livestock production. They produce animal products in a way that serves the environment by keeping pasture land open, hence maintaining biodiversity and bringing high value food on the market.

Whilst everyone talks about food security, it should not be forgotten that food security is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for nutrition security. The triple health burden assesses 1.4 billion people as over-nourished, while 925 million are undernourished and 2 billion suffer from malnutrition, from the so called ‘hidden hunger’, a chronic micronutrient deficiency (Zinc, Iron, Vitamin A, Iodine, Selenium). Diseases and malnutrition function like a vicious circle. Once affected by a disease, in­creased nutrient requirements and increased severity of infection repeat and leave a persistent in­fection. Poor nutrition early in life affects the cognitive and physical development of a human being, which continues to trap generations in poverty. Strategies to combat iron deficiency, for example, include supplementation or fortification (e.g. mass fortification in salt and flour).

The big advantage of this course was that one got a holistic view of the global food system, but at the same time also had the chance to zoom in on certain topics. There was room to discuss issues in plenary, which is very valuable given the diversity of backgrounds and nationalities in the group of students who participated. The multi-cultural and multidisciplinary exchange fostered participants’ critical way of thinking. One gets stimulated to ask further questions about statements and becomes more cau­tious in arguing.

The World Food System Centre (WFSC) provides a platform to strengthen young professionals in the field of sustainable agriculture and the world food system. By providing regular information and fostering exchange, the WFSC gives us the possibility to stay connected as a group also in the future and it leaves the feeling that each of us can actually contribute and make a difference in the system. Still open and upcoming questions can be discussed directly with the group. The outreach and impact of the course is of course also very much dependent on each person’s activity and interactions between the members.

This kind of course makes the difference because it has nothing to do with superficial networking. It is an intense time, which brings people close together. You live and work for two weeks in the same house, stay in shared rooms and you do not hear only about scientific knowledge from partici­pants, but also very personal things, which definitely fosters a sense of belonging to a group of like-minded and motivated peers. As young and freshly motivated future leaders of the world food system, and with the spirit of “the world is not a plate - the world is round” we go and spread our wings, trying to make the world go round and round…

Picture courtesy: Rahel Wyss - ETH -WSFC Summer School's group eating Swiss carrots fresh picked from the field!