Chautauqua Institution, July 5, 2014. Since 1874 Chautauqua has been a Mecca for serious lifetime learners to exchange ideas on spirituality, philosophy, sience, and ethics. Set on the south shore of Lake Chautauqua in western New York, not far from Lake Erie, it's streets are closed to most vehicles, like a college campus. In fact that is the feel of the place - a campus where intellectuals gather to discuss the issues of the day.
But Chautauqua also offers performances by its symphony
orchestra, opera company, and live theater. There is a movie house that screens
first run films and classics. The other fine arts are also well represented. It
has a library, a grand old hotel overlooking the lake, a carillon, and the amphitheater
houses the world's largest outdoor pipe organ. It's a deceptively pleasant context for discussing the future of our kids, our nation, and the world.
Each week during the 9 week summer season, Chautauqua
considers a different theme. Last year when I attended the theme was "The
Persuit of Happiness" and this year my wife and attended the "Feeding a Hungry Planet"
discussions. The week was a collaboraion
between National Geographic Magazine and Chautauqua. The afternoon speakers focused on the related problem of poverty in America which we will write about in a separate series concurrently with this one.
The first half of this century will mark the fusion of momentous global trends that could be catastrophic for food supplies:
* Population, now 7 billion, will grow to nine or ten billion.
* Most all cultivatable land is already under cultivation, and food demands will more than double in 36 years.
* Global climate change is reducing the productivity of agriculture.
* Much modern agriculture is not resilient or sustainable because of erosion, fossil fuel dependent methods, the exhaustion of ancient aquifers, risk prone mono-cultures, chemical pollution and more.
* Many world populations are at or below subsistence nutrition now.- Advertisement -
* Minerals, clean air, and pure water are becoming critically scarce resources..
On Monday Dennis Dimick, Executive Environmental Editor at National Geographic partnered with photographer Jim Richardson to present a pictorial overview of the food challenges the world faces. With photos, narrative, and statistics they described present and future problems in feeding the planet. Their sweeping and necessarily limited overview will be covered at length in this summer's issues of the National Geographic Magazine, themed The Future of Food.
On Tuesday, author Tracie McMillan and photographer Amy Tonsing previewed their feature in the August National Geographic titled "The New Face of Hunger." In the 1960's about 1 in 20 (5%) of Americans could be classified as food insecure, a term used to describe those who at least once a month don't know where their next meal will come from. That figure was about the same as the unemployment rate. Today one is six (15%) of Americans is hungry. Of those who get food stamps (SNAP), 41% live with someone who is earning an income - it's no longer just the unemployed who are food insecure.
Tonsing points out that even middle class families may be only one paycheck away form being food insecure. For others, underemployment means the paycheck does not cover housing and transportation with enough left for food. These are the chronicaally poor of rural areas, they are usually people who consider themselves middle class, but have lost a job or encountered a medical emergency and are unsure where the money will come from to meet expenses. The downward slide of losing home, car and ending up homeless looms as a harsh reality of life.
Wednesday Geneticist Pamela C. Ronald described the strain that the population explosion is having and will have on the efficient production of food. She described traditional cross breeding techniques and their limitations. She explained how the study of plant genomes can expedite the production of varieties of plant that are more productive and more resilient in the face of environmental stresses. She also advocated for the ongoing development of genetically modified organisms to meet the need to reduce inefficient and polluting uses of chemicals. She also acknowledged the need for regulatory oversight.
Thursday chef Barton Seaver who directs the Healthy and Sustainable food program at Harvard's Center for Health and the Global Environment, examined the world's seafood supply. He described how seafood is currently obtained, both through farming and the fishing industry. He demonstrated how wasteful and destructive most present day methods are, and explained the changes that must occur for the supply to be sustainable.
Friday, Jonathan Foley, Director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, spoke about making our food supply sustainable. Agricultrue has advance rapidly in the past fifty years to meet a three fold increase in the consumption of food and water. He posed the question, "How do we live through the most explosive, changing period in human history, and get out of it without causing too much damage?" His presentation described the inefficiencies of current agriculture which include excessive use of water, inefficient use of land, and focus on crops that don't directly produce food for human consumption. Much of US agriculture depends upon non-renewable resources (e.g.: ancient aquifers, oil). The growth of the global middle class, and the 2 to 3 billion additional people expected to be born over the next 36 years will double the demands on global food supplies. Foley says flatly, we can't do that. Not unless we both change the way we eat, and the way we farm.
It is hard to imagine any subject of more sweeping importance and urgency than keeping the world food supply both sustainable and resilient in the face of global climate change and population pressures. Marguerite and I will collaborate to report more fully on each of the Chautauqua speaker's topics in coming articles in this series. Each of these speakers and photographers is contributing to National Geographic's The Future of Food . Both in the magazine and on line, feature articles will lay out an understandable and compassionate description of the problems we face and the possible solutions. What we saw and heard in this week's Chautauqua lecture series was a demonstration of the really fine journalism that is a National Geographic tradition.