The United Nations is convening a Food Systems Summit in New York this fall, ushered in by a pre-summit in Rome in July. Leading up to the Summit, the youth of the world met virtually early in May for a dialogue about the food system.
It’s important to know what 16 year-olds think about food. Certainly, the teenagers in my family think food is important. In fact, I’d say they are thinking about food almost constantly, and no, I don’t want to know what they are thinking about when they aren’t thinking about food.
Dialogues on food are occurring everywhere you look, building up to what will be at least the fifth conference on food held by the UN since 1992. The prior conferences concentrated on the problems of hunger and malnutrition.
The 2021 Food Systems Summit to be held this fall has a much larger and more far reaching agenda, aiming to reform the “Food System” from the ground up. Or, as one dialoging youth expressed her goals for the summit: “We must stay committed to the profound transformation of food,” said Jessica Vega Ortega, Co-President of the Global Caucus of Indigenous Youth, Mexico.
Come to find out, humanity has been suffering from a food system that is failing miserably by every measure that matters. We farmers have a lot to answer for, and the United Nations is just the organization to hold us to account. Hunger is increasing, and, according to the publicity surrounding the Summit, our present system of producing food is neither sustainable, inclusive, nor supportive of “smallholders.” As a society we are not just obese, but wasteful.
Now, a skeptic might point out that we have the food system we do because billions of people have for thousands of years made logical and reasonable responses to economic, climatic, and logistical challenges, all the while getting better at meeting the immense challenge of providing food for billions of people.
Hunger has risen recently, likely as a result of the pandemic, but that is a short term anomaly in the midst of a long term and extraordinary record of success. Global hunger fell from 13.8 percent of world population in 2001 to 8.8 per cent in 2017. Here in the U.S., despite well documented strains, the food system performed remarkably well during the pandemic and people worldwide have benefitted from decreasing costs for food and increasing convenience, nutrition, and variety in their diets.
In fact, it’s only the past two centuries of extraordinary success from the food system that allows us the luxury of worrying about sustainability and equity. While it’s important to find out what teenagers think about farming and the like, perhaps we should think about history as well.
Between 1845 and 1852, one million Irish perished from hunger, and another million emigrated. The country lost one-fourth of its population. Drought and war caused the population of China to drop 60 million people from 1850 to 1873. The last years of the 17th century also saw widespread famine in Europe. The great famine in Finland in 1696 killed one third of the population. Fernand Braudel, in The Structure of Everyday Life, quotes one historian on the famine: "if one wants to measure the catastrophes of history by the proportion of victims claimed, the 1696-7 famine in Finland must be regarded as the most terrible event in European history."
As Braudel notes, through most of mankind's existence, two bad harvests led to widespread hunger. Modern agriculture hasn't been a curse for mankind, but rather a huge blessing.
But it’s all been for naught, according to the experts lined up for the Summit, and we have to do better if we are to meet the 17 Sustainable Development Goals outlined by the United Nations. The Food System must change if we are to provide for a future with food produced by millions of smallholders perfectly balanced by race, gender, and sexual preference, providing healthy and nutritious food for local consumers, all without the use of herbicides, insecticides, or worst of all, genetically modified seed.
You, too, can be part of the Food Summit. In fact, you can be a “Summit Hero.” All you have to do is to sign up, promising that you share the vision of the Food Summit and will follow the rules of engagement. After signing up, you’ll be given the opportunity to organize and host an “Independent Food Systems Dialogue.”
Farmers here in my small farming community gather at the local seed corn dealership, where they are already in an extended dialogue about the future of the food system, but the conversations tend to concentrate on more immediate and local concerns. Like pig weeds and high school football. I’m not really sure that my neighbors are prepared to be part of a larger “dialogue,” and I’m certainly not brave enough to ask.
It’s creepy to demand vows of loyalty in order to participate, and it’s the very definition of hubris to imagine that we can reorder the world with a Summit, even one called by the United Nations. Farming can and must be more sustainable. To deny the damage some farmers do to the environment and their neighbors with poor practices is a mistake. Producers and processors of food should be more inclusive, and an industry that, here in the U.S., has come to depend on billions of dollars of subsidies from taxpayers is an industry that needs to change and improve.
Having said all that, I’m certain that little will be accomplished by hundreds of government functionaries, dozens of representatives of international non-governmental organizations, representatives of a few green washing corporations, the obligatory famous chefs, and a few token farmers meeting on taxpayer funded junkets to Rome and New York City.
To deny the food system’s successes and to call for drastic changes from the heights of the huge and lucrative industry that has grown up around the idea that the present ways of growing, transporting and distributing food are a failure, while refusing to include the actual farmers, grain merchandisers, seed breeders, and truck drivers who do the hard work of feeding people, is a recipe for failure. To damn an industry that is rightly proud of its success at feeding more people with less will guarantee that you’ll be ignored by the guys who gather down at my seed corn dealership. They are the people who could, if given the proper incentives and attention, make a difference in our present ways of providing food.
It’s not a Summit we need, but rather gratitude for what we have, and humility about what we can change.
About the Author: Blake Hurst is a farmer and greenhouse grower in Northwest Missouri.
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