i want to welcome you to what i think is the 12th joint speaker series they grow in audience and popularity each time, which is a great thing i think it means that people are coming back, and new people are coming and i’m certainly delighted to see that happen and for everybody that’s here, welcome you back to the next one as well. these have been put together by my office primarily by lisa lavalle who after 11 previous tries managed to put together my 2 favorite things: food and science!
among other things, lisa writes the script for my remarks, which i seldom read, and now i really want to go off-script, this is not it. this will be my, i’m retiring at the end of the month and this will be my last time on the stage for these, i look forward to coming back and sitting in the audience for many more. i think it’s an appropriate time to give thanks to lisa for all that she’s done, this really has been her idea, the parties are hers, she puts the whole thing together, she has help from other people in the office, to be sure but she’s really done a fantastic job for this, and i would ask for a round of applause for that!
[applause] lisa! so tonight’s subject is food & science, and it will follow a format we’ve used before mainly to have a moderator and some panelists to discuss this subject. the moderator in this case is tim meyer, who is the chief operating officer at fermi lab, these are, the joint in the joint speaker series means joint between the university of chicago, argonne, and fermi lab. and tim is, as the chief operating officer at fermi lab, he was previously at triumph which is the closest thing that canada has to fermi lab
where he was director of strategic planning and communications by a strange coincidence, the director of both of these labs was nigel lockear, so tim’s been working for nigel for a long time. he is, from the description i’ve given, he would appear to be a bureaucrat, like the rest of us, and he is, but he is also a card-carrying, high-energy physicist. and more recently, he’s become a considerable expert in farming. as a matter of fact, if he keeps at it, he might be promoted to chief farming officer at fermi lab. fermi lab does, there is a little-known fact that farming is done at fermi lab, and the chief operating officer has to worry about how this gets done, and tim does.
i think without further ado, i will invite tim up to the stage to start the program. all right, good evening. thank you don, for opening this event, and that kind introduction. i just want to mention, if you’re here for a jazz performance, you came to the wrong evening. but i’m honored to have a chance to share tonight’s stage with some amazing brains, as well as stomachs of good respect. i’m from fermi lab, where we make and study particles of many types. we really like neutrinos right now. but as sergei will tell you, you’ve got to make protons first, in order to produce the neutrinos.
and you might wonder what’s the connection between fermi lab and food. and i would say there’s really only two connections: both start with the letter ‘f’, and the second is that at fermi lab, we do like to eat. which perhaps you can tell… but we’ll come back to that later. and yes, i’m going to try to use food puns, metaphors and references all evening, so i hope you can swallow that. [groans] thank you! well trained audience. bartender… another. now i’ve been waiting for tonight’s session for months.
if you think the election polls are open to interpretation, or perhaps biased, or some of the worst math and science on television, just wait until you ask a colleague about food. diet, nutrition, how do humans eat? how should we be eating? among 10 friends, you’ll get something like 12 opinions, and 6 requests for you to pick up the check. but fortunately we asked the luminaries here tonight, who will shed some light on our appetite for understanding. so let me ask: are you hungry for some science? [yes]
all right, i can’t quite hear you, are you hungry for some science? [yes!] all right! thank you. so i do have to say a few things about how we’ll run tonight’s program. if you haven’t been here before, it’s got a particular format you’re going to hear from 4 speakers, who will each give a ted-style talk of about 10 minutes, hopefully less, an overview of their work, and how it relates to food no offense, guys.
but after each talk i’ll reappear, and we’ll have time for a few questions from the audience but the entree here, if you will, actually comes at the end when we bring up all 4 speakers, and let you feast on them. so bear that in mind, and if you don’t have a chance to ask your question immediately, save it for at the end of the program. now, before i yield to my gourmet colleagues, i do have to acknowledge our master chef, don leavy. as don mentioned, he is retiring. he’s been a driving force at the university of chicago and its national laboratories, i think for a little less than a hundred years.
and this joint speakers series is just one of a number of these ground-breaking, partnership-producing initiatives that are really his doing. so thank you don for seeing the light, and actually helping the rest of us see the light. we’re part of the same family, so don, [applause] okay, well that’s enough from me, since we’re hungry for enlightenment, let me turn to our first speaker. so joshua elliott is a research scientist and fellow at the computation institute at the university of chicago and argonne. joshua works on a variety of topics at the interface of global change,
environmental and social sciences through a variety of applied modeling, and computational projects. he also happens to be a reformed particle theorist, so i’m proud to salute that he found work using his skills. and i’d also like to note that although he is a vegetarian, he once helped kill a chicken at the age of 7. also want to mention that if you dowse anything in butter, and cook it on a campfire on the beach he will likely eat it. but lets please welcome joshua to the stage, as our first course. thank you. thank you, i appreciate that, that took a lot of … i was really worried about having to follow that inspirational video, but tim made it so much easier
so thank you. thank you very much, tim! i really appreciate that. ok. i’m not allowed to stand behind the podium, is that right? that’s what i was told. tim stood behind the podium, why does he get to stand behind the podium? all right, i’m assuming my title slide… that’s a very simple title slide, i like that. ok, i was told, lisa told me i had to tell a story today. and so i don’t really know any good stories, so i decided to tell you the story of my research group at the computation institute at the center for robust decision making in climate energy policy and how we went, starting 8 years ago, how we went from studying global change to studying resilience in the food system, and hopefully learning a few lessons here and there,
both about research, about the food system, about feeding every…etc. etc. i’ll get back to the title in a second. because i know i’m going to run out of time, and get chased off stage before i finish my slides, i’m going to go ahead and give you the lesson up front, so spoiler alert! this is going to be a story, basically, about scales, it’s going to be a story about the transition of research from very large, global-scale phenomena that act on multi-decadal time scales and affect the planet a long time in the future down to research working on relatively small scales, and on phenomena that work in seasonal and sub-seasonal scales to affect populations and food security and people immediately, and in the now.
and i’ll sort of explain that. and also about looking at going from multi-decadal climate change to looking at climatic events that happen in the annual, seasonal, or even smaller time-scales and really trying to learn from each crisis that’s happening how can we adapt to, and prepare for, climate change as these crises become more frequent and worse, and etcetera and hence my title, with the crises, and stuff. so we can all just go home now, or… but they gave us free drinks and stuff, so i might as well just finish ok, all right, all right.
i’ll go through the slides. ok, so at the computation institute we started our global change research program in 2008 if you’ll recall, 2008 was a very exciting time, new administration heading into washington, national, and even global, climate change policy was inevitably just around the corner the only question was, how do we design the optimal policy that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions fast enough, but without unduly slowing economic growth without reducing job growth, etcetera. and so we at the computation institute built giant computational models, as we do,
to study global policy and global change and to address topics like the leakage of environmental pollution through national climate policies, the leakage of wealth and capital to unregulated countries if a country tries to regulate carbon by itself, and we published a bunch of papers on this in economics journals. we even published one paper in a law journal, we wanted to get the lawyers, the international tax lawyers excited about carbon border tax adjustment, and carbon leakage, and stuff. i don’t know if they ever did, i think only david weisbach got excited about it, but you know.
it’s easy to get him excited about things, so i don’t think that was a huge win. we also were really interested…. he’s not here, is he? no, i don’t think so. ok, good. we also were really interested in studying different alternative energy technologies. to look at which one of these energy technologies was closest to that sweet spot in their cost curve where they could provide the most efficient way at reducing greenhouse gases in the cheapest way and getting us to a clean energy future as fast and as cheaply as possible. and this is actually where we first came across studying agriculture. through the topic of biofuels, working closely with folks at argonne.
and we published a lot of papers on that, again, on how bio-fuels are going to affect food systems, how bio-fuels are affecting land use change, competitions with food, and etcetera. and we at rdcep work on mitigation topics, because mitigation is really important if you want to avoid the truly devastating consequences of climate change over the long term. i apologize, this is a picture of new york city underwater, i couldn’t find a picture of chicago underwater, so forgive me for the locational mismatch. but i didn’t try very hard, but still, i didn’t find one…. but we realized, so in 2010, in late 2010, i don’t know if you all remember this, but it started to look a little less likely that national climate policy was going to get passed
any time in the near future so we took sort of a look at the pathway that the world was on, and we concluded that the world was really firmly on the worst possible emissions pathway that you can imagine, and indeed, ever since then we have stayed on that worst possible emissions pathway that’s considered by the ipcc and we thought about it, and we concluded that we’re really likely to stay on that path, really no matter what happens at this point, until at least about 2020. now all that extra co2 in the atmosphere, that traps extra heat in the earth system that heat initially mostly goes into this giant, enormous heat sink we call the ocean
where it rattles around for a few decades before finally equilibrating with the atmospher so what that means, effectively, is that even if we stopped emissions now, even if we stabilized atmospheric co2, it would take probably 30-40 years before global surface temps actually stopped rising. so put another way, because of the inertia in the earth system, and because of the inertia in especially the economic and political systems, a large percentage of the climate change that we expect by, say, 2050, is really already "baked in" to the system. and there’s kind of nothing we can do about it at this point. so we decided we needed to figure out how to maybe prepare for that. at least in some capacity, so we launched a new initiative through rdcep
that would eventually become our impacts group, and we started off by trying to focus on issues of food security, adapting to climate change, and agriculture, and producing enough food to feed the planet over the next decades. in 2012, we joined a large international project with 40 other research groups from around the world to do the first ever model-inter-comparison project, to synthesize knowledge on climate change impacts across a variety of different sectors. we led the agricultural sector for this, and what we found is a couple of robust things amidst a mass of uncertainty which is that on presently harvested agricultural lands, climate change could mean anything
from an 8-45% reduction in productivity and that a lot of that negative productivity is happening in low latitude regions, where food insecurity and indeed rapid population growth are already huge, huge problems, obviously. and finally also that there are actually potentially big opportunities that are going to start emerging in the far northern latitudes, like canada, northern siberia, etcetera, that could compensate for these, but again, dramatically change the sort of north-south distribution of food production even further. we also combined these results with an ensemble of global water models
from a group within the same project, because we wanted to look at how will fresh water availability over the next century impact, in fact, the productivity of food. and what we found is that in dozens of river basins around the world, the ones in the pink and red here, constraints in fresh water availability over the next many decades imply the reversion of between 20-60 million hectares of land from irrigated crop land to rain fed crop land which about as big of a negative shock to agricultural productivity as the direct effects of climate change itself, so it’s sort of doubling climate change, let’s say.
all right, so that was great. it was good, and climate change is really important. climate change is going to make food production and productivity much more challenging and complicated in the future. but climate change is not the whole story. global change is a whole lot more than just relatively slow, steady changes in atmospheric conditions. and in order to do a consistent sort of analysis of food security, and hunger and health, over even a multi-decadal time-scale at all, you really need to take into account potentially dozens of other large-scale global forces
associated with human influences and environmental externalities. and so we set about to try and do that. and climate is not changing in a vacuum. i really like that, so i should say that out loud as well. so global change: what is global change? global change is population growth, of course… i’m going to use the laser backwards… no! global change is population growth, global change is rapidly increasing wealth, and especially changes in the disparities in how wealth is being distributed global change is rapidly increasing demand for meat and animal products especially in those increasingly wealthy households.
global change is increasing extreme events, both droughts and floods impacting farmers around the world it’s also depleting freshwater resources, both surface and groundwater which are drying up around the planet both from overuse and from climate change. global change is also deforestation, and habitat loss and loss of species around the planet at really rapid and concerning rates. but then, global change is also rapid technological growth which as you know has the potential to rapidly increase productivity,
both in agriculture and other sectors it’s also technology that is providing us with new data and information that is allowing us to make better decisions about farm management and how to manage the environments around farms and reduce environmental externalities from farms. and then finally, global change is also the sort of innate human ability to adapt, and to take advantage of changes as they occur including by growing crops in far, frozen reaches of manitoba that really have no business being there, even harvesting while they still have snow all over them.
and a lot of these things, just like greenhouse gas emissions, and just like climate change, a lot of these things are growing rapidly, and in fact exponentially in many cases. and are really reaching regimes that are well outside of anything we have any historical context for whatsoever. and that’s troubling, just like it is with climate change, and co2. all right, so population, i’ll just do the easy one. so population is growing, continuing to grow, as everybody knows. it’s projected to reach well over 9 billion by 2050.
and at the same time, it’s projected that per capita wealth and urbanization will also increase rapidly over that time, especially in the developing countries. at the same time, we know that wealth, increasing wealth, also drives an increasing demand for food calories and most importantly, an increasing demand for a fraction of those food calories to come from animal products. so let’s just take, for example, china, which in 2010 was about here, at about 5,000 us dollars per capita gdp, was consuming about 60 kg of meat per capita. by 2050, china is expected to be about here.
at about 30,000 us dollars per capita gdp, and consuming almost double, perhaps even double, the meat consumption they eat now. so that means a country consuming per capita about as much meat as the average american but with 4, maybe even 5 times as many people in it. and this population growth, increasing meat consumption, and a lot of other factors that we know way too much about like biofuels and everything else, and loss of agricultural land led a united nations panel in 2009 to say that food production by 2050 was going to have to double in order to meet growing demand and reduce hunger.
which is… it’s a really big number. i mean, i don’t even have good context for it, but doubling by 2050 it’s really… it’s a lot. when you add to that the fact that meat consumption is actually quite a lot more input intensive than production of other food products, and that a lot of this growth is going to be in meat production, that further complicates the story. so it’s estimated, depending on how you count it, that to produce one unit of protein from animal products requires something like an order of magnitude more grain, water, fossil fuels, and emissions compared to producing the equivalent amount of protein from vegetable products.
so all of that together means that there’s a huge amount of pressure now growing amount of pressure on the demand side of the food system at the same time that the stresses on the supply side, from climate change, are becoming more and more severe. and the likely outcome from that is more frequent, and bigger, disruptions to the global food system. and that can manifest either as domestic shocks in regions that have, that are already food insecure and that don’t have the abilities to go out on the global market to make up for local domestic shortfalls, or it can manifest as production shocks in large breadbasket regions
which affect global markets and global prices and have significant implications in regions that are import dependent, because they don’t have enough domestic capacity to feed their own populations. and that includes most middle eastern and north african countries, and then here of course the best example is the continuing large-scale drought we’re seeing right now in ethiopia, and to a smaller extent the drought we’re seeing in india as well. all right, so what can we do about it? so in 2014, we joined a task force called the uk-us task force on extreme weather and global food system resilience to try and estimate the scale and scope of this problem from continental to global scales
we used the available date to estimate both what is the size of a rare-event shock in both present and future climates, and looked at whether and to what extent those shock sizes are likely to grow in future as climate grows. and the ultimate conclusion is that the kind of event that in the 20th century we would have called a 1 in 100 year extreme shock event by the middle of the century is likely to occur something like once every 30 years so a really dramatic acceleration in the frequency of these extreme shock events. so what are we going to do about it? well, again we’re going to move to finer and finer scales as i said, with our research projects. so right now at the ci our goal, you know, what can people do
about these food shock events? well, if farmers, if governments, if ngos have advance warning about these events before they occur, then they can do extreme management practices they can release food from reserves. they can change policies on biofuels and other things. to try and stem the effects that these events have on domestic populations and on global markets. so currently the tools that are available to help to project these events in real time, as they’re happening operate at very course resolutions. they don’t account for all the data that is available, and they’re updated only in very, very low frequencies.
so we’re developing tools now at the ci that take advantage of some of our technologies to assimilate satellite data in real time at a high frequency, that assimilate both short and long term climate forecasts from models run at noaa and other places that assimilate soil management and environmental data, all through high-resolution farm system models, in order to produce real-time, accurate high-frequency projections of how food production is likely to evolve, how the harvest is likely to evolve throughout the season. and this is just a random example that is fun, i won’t really go into. and then finally translating that all into large-scale, high-resolution maps for food insecure regions
that can help to identify hot spots of potential food insecurity before they emerge with anywhere from weeks to potentially several months of lead time before the disasters actually strike. all right, so finally, we have reached the finest scales, so we started out using global policy models global trade models to model global policy and its impacts at the global level and we’re now down to improving early warning and drought monitoring systems for local up to regional scales. so where do we go next? well, of course the next step is that we’re going to apply these same tools at sub farm level, using precision agriculture applications, at a 10 meter resolution
in order to try and help farmers increase productivity while simultaneously reducing their fertilizer usage, reducing their irrigation usage, and improving both environment and productivity at the same time but that is not a story for tonight. that’s a story for next time, whenever we have this food related talk so i’ll just leave you with this one picture of food from around the world, so this is four random families from four random countries, and the food that they choose. just to remind you that food is a choice, and the choices that we make both as consumers and producers are really important
and they impact things around the globe. so make good choices! [q: so all of the land and water resources are going, and we need to grow vegetables and food for people, is going into feed for animals, and with all of the problems with water soil degradation, pesticide use, antibiotic resistance etcetera, it seems like it just isn’t sustainable, and we have to do something about making people realize that.] in order to solve the problem from the demand side, it requires a holistic view of food waste, and diets, and a lot of other things. absolutely, you know, if everyone in america became vegetarian tomorrow, that would go a long way toward solving the problem.
but we also need to recognize that meat plays a very important cultural and nutritional role in a lot of parts of the world, so you can’t just say meat is the problem it’s probably safe to say that the industrial meat industry in the western world is largely unsustainable, or at least a large contributor to the problem of unsustainability. there’s no doubt about that. but we need a solution, we can’t really blame it on one or another industry, we really need a solution that looks holistically at the food system, reduces waste, improves diets, across especially the developed world, and improves productivity all at the same time to produce enough food for everyone. so as a former phd physicist myself, i must say i think joshua got the tastier job.
but next up is kathy morrison, the newcomb family professor of anthropology and of social sciences, and chair of the university of chicago’s anthropology department. kathy studies the archeology and historical anthropology of south asia with a focus on pre-colonial and early colonial south india. she’s confronted her own share of large snakes, including cobras while conducting research in the field, similar to her often-named fictional counterpart, indiana jones she eats adventure for breakfast. but she really loves making tacos and enchiladas for dinner. so please welcome kathy.
it’s true about the cobras, i will say. so joshua and i hadn’t met before today, but it seems like in some ways our talks are inverses of each other’s because my talk is also really a talk about scale. and a talk about the consequences of a lot of small actions on larger, both temporal scales and also spatial scales. and like josh, i started out with a kind of personal story, talk about the trajectory of my own research and how it comes to put me here in a situation like this. so sometime around 30 years ago, a little more than 30 years ago, i won’t say how much more, as a beginning graduate student i was asked to join a research project
in india. and i joined a project studying the archeological remains of the city of vijayanagara, in southern india it was the capital of a huge empire that controlled most of southern india between the 14th and 16th century a period that we sometimes refer to as the medieval, or middle, period. and it was a great opportunity to go to the field and do research. but really the main reason, i think, that i agreed to go to work at this really fabulous site in one of the hottest and driest parts of southern india was the fact that i was a very big fan of indian food.
and my best friend in college’s mother was a tremendous cook, and i used to eat her cooking all the time when i was an undergraduate and i expected that i would get that marvelous indian food when i went to the field in southern india. and when i got to the field, it was a little different than what ihad expected. south indian food is quite distinctive from the north indian food that most americans experience in restaurants here, and what i came to realize that the food that we were served in camp this was not quite as nice as this thali, is a particular sort of cuisine.
so the south indian meal is often referred to as a thali, which is a word referring to the plate and the plate can either be something like a banana leaf, like you see here or a metal plate with a lot of little bowls and the plate itself is a kind of metonym for the meal. the center of the south indian thali is rice. all of the other kinds of dishes that occur around it are vegetables, pulses, bananas, things with coconut in them dairy products. all of these are products, except for dairy products, of intensive cultivated and especially irrigated
agriculture. so the thali itself represents a very particular type of meal, a very elite form of consumption. as i came to realize. so the kind of meals that we were having at our excavation camp were very alike in many ways, the meals that the people who lived in this vast, medieval city themselves were eating in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. or at least some of the people who lived in that medieval city. besides the kings, the merchants, and the other kind of wealthy people who ate south indian rice-based and irrigated product based thalis,
the other big consumer of this kind of elite cuisine were the gods. south indian temple complexes in the medieval period were very large affairs, they had kitchens, they had huge staffs. they often owned significant amounts of agricultural land, and they fed very many people, including the god or goddess, as well. and like elite humans, gods enjoyed the same sort of food, and preferentially rice-based cuisines. so we can see this in very graphic, material form in, for example, these kinds of stone thalis that we find sometimes in temple complexes that look exactly like the kinds of meals that people are still eating.
the big round plate with the small bowls, and the kind of central place accorded for these products of intensive, irrigated agriculture. quite fantastic. and it wasn’t too hard to figure out, working in the city itself, right on the banks of the tungabhadra river one of the few perennial rivers in southern india where all of those irrigated products came from. as you can see here in this picture, there are still fields that are watered by canals, and by aqueducts that were built in the 14th, 15th, and 16th century. so these are still fields
that are under production. and they grow, guess what: they growe rice, they grow vegetables, they grow bananas they grow sugar cane, all the same kinds of things that go into the elite thali. and one of the other consequences of this, to foreshadow, is also this obviously represents massive environmental transformation of the landscape. right, so this is one of the dryest parts of southern india. after i spent many years working in the city of vijayanagara itself, documenting all of these archeological remains, for my own dissertation project and for many, many years later,
i moved out from the city in order to look at the larger regional context. so we’re expanding now, from the scale of a single city to the scale of a particular region. but we’re on a relatively short kind of temporal span, only about 300 years. when i went out to look at the area outside of the city and study how the environment had been transformed how agriculture was organized, i found a completely different universe. a universe of dry farming, a very precarious universe, in which agriculture is extremely risky, and very problematic so it’s supported, either only by rain, less than 50 cm per year or by runoff-fed reservoirs like you see here.
and you can see us standing on top of it, actually, documenting it. these runoff fed reservoirs are very impressive looking kinds of features, but they actually have very, very high failure rate. and the life of a farmer out in these rural, dry areas is extremely precarious. what we also see archeologically, and in the historical documents too is that the kinds of foods that are associated with the areas outside of the intensive irrigated zone are completely different so unlike the rice-based thali sitting on a banana leaf that you see here on the right side of the slide the food of ordinary people is based on millet instead of rice,
dry-farmed grains. there’s none of the kinds of extras, the coconut, the banana, the other kinds of things, all of these irrigated crops no bananas at all in fact, either as a plate or on the plate. so we see a very different kind of way of life, and very different modalities of consumption just to refer back to joshua’s talk in a minute. these differentiated cuisines, then, as we came to know over the course of several hundred years themselves created differentiated physical landscapes. and the landscapes were affected in various kinds of ways
they were affected in terms of the nature of soils, the nature of slopes, of vegetation, and also in terms of the kinds of biodiversity that we find in those contexts. so what we see here is that the kinds of, not only food choices, but the kinds of power relations that exist between people have significant environmental consequences that ramify through the generations. so it’s not very original or shocking i think, to an audience like this, to make the point that our food choices have consequences this is a message that we’re bombarded with, in a sense, every day.
but to get back to the question of scale again for a moment, it’s very easy to think that one small choice can’t really have that much impact on the larger system and in a kind of straightforward empirical sense, that’s certainly true, right? but food choices, like other kinds of choices of consumption, many small choices, add up to make a big decision. so the work that i did studying the development of elite cuisines in the 14th, 15th and 16th century then led to another research project, which i won’t tell you all about, about the much longer-term trajectory fo this kind of differentiated food system, and these differentiated landscapes that emerge in southern india, this time over the last 5,000 years.
so it felt like we were really doing something kind of special then, in a way looking at really long-term changes and what impacts those have on the landscape. but 5,000 years in one little piece of southern india, again, you know, it’s actually kind of small potatoes. really. so if we think about what the longer term impacts of these kinds of food choices including the things like the production of irrigated rice, then we have to, again, change our spatial scale quite considerably. and this is a map, this is earl ellis’ map of global, what he calls, anthromes
that is, various kinds of anthropogenic environments across the earth. right now, today, and you can see in this particular map, it’s not an historical map it’s of what’s happening now rice, and rice villages are in a kind of an alarming blue color right? so if we think that rice, and the production of rice paddies has a particular impact on the earth system, you can see that this is not an inconsequential kind of impact. what kind of impact do things like irrigated rice have on the earth system? obviously there are changes in vegetation, and these typically become
permanent field systems, so there’s no regrowth of woody vegetation so there are changes in carbon sequestration changes in albedo, there are always associated with the kinds of vegetation transformation of agricultural production. but also, rice paddies, and taro pond fields are special in a way, because they produce methane, which is a greenhouse gas. so what has been the long-term impact of the expansion of rice and rice agriculture in asia and elsewhere, on not only humans and human cultural systems and the distribution of power relations within human societies but also on the earth system itself. this is something that my students and i began
worrying about quite specifically. so again we expanded our spatial scale. so from 5,000 years and a focus on southern asia we began to worry more about a period of about 10,000 years that is, the holocene, since the beginning of human agriculture, and for the whole globe. so i began work on co-directing an international scientific working group called land cover 6k which is a kind of a… as i think i told the reporter who asked about it i said it is an insanely ambitious effort to document not only vegetation change
for the last 10,000 years for the globe primarily by looking at pollen analysis as a proxy record of past vegetation vegetation obviously is very important for the earth system particularly in terms of carbon cycling and albedo but other things as well. but also looking at the changes in human land use, and their relationships to vegetation because that’s very much a black box often in how we think about the human impact on the earth. and many people say things about whether people have or have not had a very significant impact on the earth over the last 10,000 years, since we started domesticating plants and animals
but the truth is we have very poor empirical evidence about what exactly the nature of that impact might be. so in this group we are working with the climate modelers, we’re working with ecologists, and biologists, but quite unusually, it also includes a large number of archeologists historians and historical geographers. and we’re working to aggregate, to commensurate, and to synthesize the actual empirical evidence of basically past human history both land use and then also land cover, vegetation, for the earth in ways that will be useful for global climate models.
so we’ve gone, in a way, kind of full circle in this discussion and really for me in my own research trajectory from a very small scale, very kind of intimate level of analysis to, you know, 10,000 years and the entire globe. we’ve gone, in a sense, from plate, the plate to the planet. as it were. so when we think about food, it’s a very small scale, in a way a very intimate kind of thing, in the manner of consumption. although as joshua pointed out, it’s not so much like that when we think about it
in terms of the global food system but it’s clear that many small choices can have a significant impact. and it’s very difficult for us, i think, to think about these kinds of multiple spatial scales not even spatial scales, but even more so, i think these multiple temporal scales. to think about where, how we’ve gotten to this point, and what kinds of relationships what kinds of processes have got us there. [q: how have these realizations affected you and your colleagues food choices now?] yeah, you know, when i talk about rice, and the differences between elite rice-based cuisine and you know, the foods of the poor, and millet
particularly in the us, where the dynamics of agricultural production are very different there’s always a dinner after the talk you know, and then people say ‘oh, i’m really sorry, there’s rice for the dinner.’ or of they didn’t listen, then they say ‘you know, we served rice, because we know you’re really interested" [laughs] i think for everybody, we do what we can. and i will say, just as an individual human being, and not so much as a scholar and as a professor at the university of chicago i have 3 community garden plots
at 62nd and dorchester and 2 at 65th and kimbark so i grow a huge amount of my own food, i’m happy to say in my community gardens, and that’s organically so that’s, i think that’s something. but the other thing about the community garden, of course, is the community part of it. right? so i think that when we think about issues like food we can’t separate them from the kinds of cultural contexts,
from the context of power and relations of access to resources and cultural specificity, right? because people make food choices not only as some kind of rational actors in a kind of economist’s sense but they also make choices that make sense to them culturally and in terms of their particular situation in the world. and that makes the world a very complicated place. thank you. thank you kathy, thank you again. so i have to say it, but she’s rice about that. well next let me move on to our next talented speaker, cathryn nagler
the bunning food allergy professor at the university of chicago her most recent work examines how intestinal bacteria regulates susceptibility to allergic responses to food. she also loves sicily, and not just the people but also the food so here to help us savor her work, cathryn so how many of you either has a food allergy or knows someone who has a food allergy? yeah, lots of hands. so when i was a kid, my brothers and i ate peanut butter and jelly almost every day for lunch. by the time my kids got to elementary school, their classrooms were peanut free and food allergies have become an enormous problem in the us and other developed countries
it’s now estimated that 15 million americans suffer from food allergies some of these are life-threatening, so it seems to present as 2 types of diseases one of the presentations involves a food allergy that develops between ages 2-5 and resolves on its own and the other is a lifelong, life-threatening allergic response to food that can send someone to the emergency room every 3 minutes in the us. so we now have 2 children in every classroom with food allergies how do we account for this kind of change in just a generation?
that’s the question that we’re trying to tackle. and our hypothesis is that it’s due to changes in what we call the microbiota that is, all of the bacteria that live in and on our bodies so in the video, you might remember when i mentioned that we are 99% microbial there are trillions of bacteria living in our intestines that are, as yet, very poorly understood and control many physiological processes and have a particular impact on the development and function of the immune system. so we’re suggesting that what’s happened, what’s caused this generational change is lifestyle practices that have changed the composition of these bacteria.
so what are some of these? they’re depicted here. the biggest offender, by far, is antibiotic use. it’s estimated that children in the united states have 6 courses of antibiotics before they’re 2 years old most of them for viral infections, for which antibiotics serve no purpose we also have extensive exposure to antibiotics sub-clinically so you may not know that for 50 years farmers have had a practice where they’ve given their livestock subclinical doses of antibiotics because they knew that that made the livestock fatter and more valuable.
and some have suggested that we’ve done that same experiment to ourselves, and that’s what’s driving the epidemic of obesity in this country. so i should mention that we study particularly food allergy, but food allergy is appearing as part of a constellation of diseases that are sometimes called the diseases of western lifestyle and they include inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, food allergy, diabetes, autism, asthma, all of which are increasing in parallel. another major offender is diet. so we’ve co-evolved with our microbiota over millenia. and as we’ve heard a little bit about, our ancestors were not consuming mcdonalds.
so the diet has changed, and our bacteria eat what we eat. and their food source has changed in a way that’s changed them, seemingly for the worse. we’ve also eliminated previously common enteropathogens vaccination had reduced exposure to infectious disease, has also changed the composition or our microbiome. and here i want to be very clear that i’m not in any way suggesting that vaccination is not the greatest public health success story in history. but what i am suggesting is that you know that being infected with something elicits a very different response than receiving a vaccine against it.
the immune system sees them in two different ways. and finally, caesarian birth and formula feedings, and i want to take a little bit of time with that. so we’re sterile prior to birth, and the co-evolved strategy is vaginal delivery. that’s how we get our founder microbiota. and the microbiota that we inherit from our mothers’ vaginal tract has a relationship that evolves over time, over an ecological succession between the mother and the mother’s interaction with the baby and breast-feeding. that whole naturally evolved interaction is disturbed by caesarean section birth.
and it’s been shown that babies born by c-section are instead, their initial founder bacteria can be tracked to the skin of their mother or their care-giver. caesarean birth associated with higher risk of allergic disease, higher susceptibility to pathogens. early childhood is what we study as the window of opportunity. this is when all of the changes in the immune system are taking place, and when it’s most susceptible to intervention, but also most susceptible to damage. and the bacterial populations are changing rapidly, they’re very unstable but over time, each individual develops their own unique microbiota that possibly changes again when they become elderly.
the bacteria that live in our gut have also a very important role in digesting our food so many of the common dietary fibers that we ingest are in fact insoluble to us without help from these bacteria that ferment them into products that are essential for our health. prominent among these are the short chain fatty acids and we’re particularly interested in one of these called buterate that serves as a critical energy source for the epithelial cells that line our digestive tract and also has other functions for the immune system. so how do we begin to address a problem of understanding with bacterial populations
are important for regulating allergic responses to food? we’re lucky that here in the university of chicago we have access to state of the art germ-free mouse facilities. so germ free mouse means that we can raise mice so that they’re never exposed to any bacteria at all. they live inside these bubbles, so these white things hanging down, these are actually gloves these are the fingers of the gloves so in order to work with the mice that are living in here for their entire lives, you have to stick your hands through these gloves and manipulate the mice within these cages. that system allows us to select bacterial populations that we can introduce into the mice
specifically, and look at how those bacterial populations interact with the immune system but as i mentioned, we know very little about the microbiota as yet. so how to approach this? what we decided to do was we divided the whole world of intestinal bacteria, and these are thousands of different species, many of which are obligate anaerobes that means that they can’t grow when they are exposed to oxygen. so they can’t be cultured in test-tubes, and we know them mostly by their genetic information, by their sequences. so what we decided to do was to compare… so this is a depiction of the epithelial surface
to compare the bacteria that live in association with the mucous layer to bacteria that are free-floating with the digestive food. and see if we could get some insight into which of those populations might be important. and in the course of those studies, we did identify a particular population of mucosa-associated bacteria called the clostridia that protected against allergic sensitization to food. and what we found that it does is that it regulates the function of the epithelial lining of our digestive tract in a way that increases the production of mucous and increases the production of natural antibiotics, antimicrobial peptides so it has a barrier protective effect.
so then we wanted to apply this to the development of novel therapeutics to prevent or treat food allergy. so to begin to do that, we collaborated with a group in italy that had done a large-scale study examining dietary management of children with cow’s milk allergy. and what our collaborator did was to compare: so these are children that come into his clinic with cow’s milk allergy, and he put them on to different formulas, to see what was most effective at managing their disease, and what he found was that when he gave them a formula that was supplemented with a conventional probiotic, lactobacillis g. g. so this is the probiotic bacteria that’s present all through whole foods,
and that is contained in yogurt, he found that those children had a greater rate of acquisition of tolerance to cow’s milk after 12 months of treatment. so he gave us fecal samples from children that received this diet, and also that received the diet without l.g.g. and what we found was that the children that had cow’s milk allergy, this is at 4 months of age had a bacterial population that looked entirely different from that in the healthy children. it had more diversity, it looked like the bacterial population of adults. as if it had gone through its maturation at warp speed. and that was very surprising to us, and we found what’s showing you here
is that is was more diverse and even though the amount of bacteria present was the same. particularly what we noticed when we compared samples before and after treatment is that the children that received the formula that was associated with the acquisition of tolerance had high levels of buteiric acid, that short chain fatty acid that i told you was important for intestinal health that’s produced by the fermentation of dietary fiber they had much more of that detectable in their feces, and after treatment. so this leads to a picture, this is a schematic that was published in nature and scientific american last year, which suggests that there are populations of bacteria including the clostridia, or another bacteria called fecal bacteria prausnitzii
that act to digest dietary fiber and produce buterate to increase populations of immune system cells i also told you about this barrier protective cytokine l22 and all of this is important for maintaining a healthy barrier an intact mucous layer. but in the absence of what this author called the bacterial peace-keepers, you have a depleted mucous layer more access of toxins and foods into the body, into the circulation, more chance for disease. so how can we use this information to begin to develop treatments for food allergy? the way we decided to approach this was to take the fecal material from healthy infants
or from allergic infants, and put them into these germ free mice. and then sensitize them with the cow’s milk protein, so the idea being that these mice would be non-allergic they’d be protected. and these mice would become allergic. and we got this really mind-boggling result. so what i’m showing you here is that here in red are the mice that are colonized with the healthy infant’s bacteria. here in grey are the mice that are colonized with the allergic infant’s bacteria. and what we’re looking at is a change in core body temperature, so when somebody goes
into anaphylaxis, their core body temperature drops and i think you can readily appreciate, if your core body temperature drops 8 degrees that’s a big problem. and these mice are dying of anaphylaxis. so what’s amazing here is that all we’ve given to the mice is the fecal material of those infants. and we’ve recapitulated the clinical phenotype so we found, then, in a topic microbiome, a microbiome that creates an allergic response. and i emphasize that all we’re giving to these mice, what’s killing them, is milk protein. that’s all.
so this, then, gives us a platform that we can use to screen potential therapeutics and we formed a company on campus to do this, and some of the candidates are mixtures of bacteria that are identified by our sequence analysis a pre-biotic dietary fibers, that is, fibers that have been selected specifically to expand buterate-producing clostridia working in conjunction with a carbohydrate chemist, and finally nano-formulations of buterate working with the collaborator at the institute for molecular engineering so i’ll just end by thanking all of the people and funding sources that have contributed to this work. [q:…a long range potential use of what you did with the mice applicable to newborns who are born by caesarean section as a way of preventing them from getting allergy?
so one particular strategy that other people are pursuing, not us, is to actually take vaginal swabs from mothers of caesarean babies, and use that to inoculate inoculate the baby’s mouth, as they might have been had they been delivered vaginally. because the children that are coming into our study have already got this altered microbiota at 4 months of age, it’s already too late. so that’s one approach that other groups are taking to address that issue. [q: are there any results from that?] very small studies so far shows that it has some efficacy colonizing those babies with the vaginal microbiota, but it’s a very small scale so far.
[q: thank you.] ok good, we’ll stop there, thank you cathryn. thank you. so i’d like to introduce our final speaker, cristina negri, who will be our dessert course although there will be dessert after this, she’s a principal agronomist at argonne national laboratory, a senior fellow of the energy policy institute at university of chicago, and a fellow of the institute of molecular engineering. cristina’s work encompasses the treatment of environmental problems through the use of plants.
so lest you think cristina is all work and no play, she does confess to occasionally enjoying plum jam on a slice of rye bread, and she also insists that everything tastes better when sitting in the italian alps. please welcome cristina to the stage. thank you, and i need to hide away from that light. anyway, there’s good things about being the last speaker and thank you joshua for making a very nice introduction to things that i don’t have to discuss anymore, because you know all about it. so what i’m going to talk to you about is really taking it a step further, and saying ok, we have all these problems
what can we do to make sure that our agricultural system becomes a little more whole than it is now. and i should add a preface, a personal story. i am an agronomist by training, so i deal with crops, plants, soils and things like that. when i got into picking agriculture as my choice, i had this dream as a young person of agriculture being such a wonderful thing, and man in balance with the environment, and such a poetic and really literary, almost experience about agriculture. maybe virgil was in my back, having studied in italy for a long time i don’t know, but obviously hard reality sets in, you realize that agriculture is probably one of the most
polluting things on earth. and i keep saying, and i have this somewhere, that it’s probably, and kathy you may contradict me, but it’s probably the largest and oldest geoengineering process that mankind has done to alter their environments. so i won’t delve more into the challenges of agriculture, but basically how do we provide food, feed, fiber, energy, growing world population, climate change, old pressures: urbanization and all that. i should add to what josh was saying, is that here in the us, we are talking about big eutrophication problems, this is a noa a picture of the hypoxia in the gulf of mexico that mostly comes from the farm fields in our part of the world
i should also add that this is a very hard, grainy thing to see, but that red thing there is the impact of greenhouse gas, co2 equivalent of agriculture. 80% of that, more or less, really comes from nitrous oxide, which is really coming from the degradation of nitrogen fertilizers. so what do we do about it, and do we have the right crops or not? through the centuries we went from true horse-power to mechanical horse-power but the issues are the same: how do we feed people, get the energy we need, and all the other uses we want to do. what does a resilient landscape look like? what can we do with that?
and so i will take you a little closer to home, in the agricultural midwest but the basic idea of what we do is really that this is a system level issue we cannot take food production on one side, energy production, bio-energy production, on another side, the fiber on the other side, and the conservation on the other one. every practice, every use of resources really has to be seen with a lens in which we really take care of both agricultural production, the conservation, the bio-energy, [?] and rural economics and development. all of this, with a perhaps more balanced impact, where we take the ecology the culture, the politics, and the economics all together, we don’t have that little you know, reddish part on the ecology. everything has to be more in balance.
so that’s what we are trying to do, and again, we are really going on the small scale, and this wasn’t supposed to be like this, but it got jammed up, and i really mean to say that landscapes in agriculture are very dynamic, and they change with time. so the slide before, the picture before this, and the transition, was a picture of a tall grass prairie which was what we had in illinois back in the time. but, and this is the last century, 1922, staley opened its first soybean mill. in decatur, illinois, where they were crushing soybeans, and they were actually making marketable products: oils and other things that were not really food yet, but they were important.
and sure enough you find a market and the landscape has changed dramatically here. and you see the increase in soybeans, and how that has changed. another big change was the inorganic fertilizer, that enabled the shift to grain only cropping, so you didn’t have to have to have legumes, you didn’t have to have anything that could be rotational you have your corn, soybean, typical thing, which is what you see right here. that’s a typical landscape land-use right now in central illinois where the yellow is soybeans, the green is corn, and the next year is soybean-corn so it doesn’t change. what we really want to get to is a more complex landscape, like this:
which has a lot of problems, and costs money because it takes away some land from production, but you have filter strips, you have grassy waterways, you have repairing forests, you have wetlands you have windbreaks, you have a lot of dynamic, more dynamic features in the landscape that actually make it more, if you want to use a trite word, sustainable or more environmentally complete. i should argue that multifunctional landscapes we’re trying to get are really old and this is an example from my hometown, this is actually a wet meadow a mercita, in italian, which is a very ancient cultivation system, imported from france in the 12th century
by the benedictine monks. what they were doing is basically, in this particular case, taking the dirty water from the city of milan and they were actually feeding them to these, you know, winged crops. so that they had a constant layer of running water in that, and what you had is two things: they would recycle all the nutrients in there, the nitrogen, the phosphate that we, that the people lost you know, through the sewer, and at the same time, we’re actually reusing the thermal energy of the water which was above zero, and with the constant flow, they were actually, as you can see, snow didn’t stay there it was melting, and that allowed crops to grow very late in the winter, and very early in the spring so actually neapoleonic troops had actually had fresh forage for their horses, and that’s why they liked
that area, they really could feed them throughout. i should add that we had a very, very distinguished engineer who developed all the hydraulics for the system it’s leonardo in 1494 developing the water stairs, and the way to feed the water gently to these systems so we can go there, and take inspiration from these systems, and do something and what we have been thinking here in our own country here, in trying to address our issue is really how can we intensify land use in a way that we can really live for a long time with it, for many, many times? and so the recipe for this that we have come up with is, land that’s not so suitable for grain production but is still agricultural land in production, and the concept of industrial ecology
recycling things that agriculture has been kind of reluctant to do, at least in the industrial forms and then the main ingredient is these different crops: they are perennial crops it’s a switchgrass. it’s the woody crops, it’s the prairie grasses, all these grasses, which are perennial, contrary to corn and soybeans, and what they can do is they develop and invest in a root system that’s deep enough to actually influence deeper than the thin surface, and they can actually add a [?] and do a lot of things and what you see here is one of our field sites, this is in nebraska, but the idea was: can we take the nitrogen that’s lost by corn and recycle it into the next crops? right there.
and so we can actually improve on what is still impossibly low efficiency, nue stands for nitrogen use efficiency, corn is a very leaky system you give 100 units of nitrogen fertilizer, it only takes 60. the rest is lost. through water, through air, where you want, but it’s lost. if we couple it with something else, and this particular case is bio-energy crops because doe funds me to look at bio-energy, but it could be forage, it could be anything else, you actually can recycle the rest of that nitrogen that is actually lost and that’s what we are really trying to do. as a result you have lower externalities you have better crops for the farmers, and a potential income.
so that’s what we are working on, and when we look at marginal land, and all that, that’s another very loaded term, what we’re looking at is not really conservation land it’s not land that’s not explored, it’s really, really where we already growing plants, corn in this particular case and i’m probably the only person that thinks that a trip from chicago to urbana-champaign is actually a very interesting landscape to see. [laughter] everybody sees just corn, i end up seeing places where there’s erosion, places where you have risk of floods, places where nothing really grows because it’s too wet. and those are the areas we are focusing on, where farmers don’t really get a whole lot,
and i’ll give you a good example with our field site this is very small. again, i’m taking you to a small scale. this is a 16 acre field, 6 hectares, or something like that and it’s in fairbury illinois, and what we have here, what you see here is the product of precision ag so farmers harvest their corn, and they have a gps locator in there that actually records the mass, the weight of grains every…i want to say 10 sq. meters or so, and so you have this very composite map a lot of data in there, but it really gives you a good picture of what happens at the field scale in a corn field. you have areas which eventually you turn into profits, areas where you make a lot of money, as a farmer, areas where you don’t make any money at all, right?
and that’s the area where we want to think about something else. coincidentally, the same area that you have very low revenues and profits, is also an area where you actually find most of the nitrogen that farmers apply. it’s lost. it goes down about a meter and a half, away from the root of corn. so it’s lost, it’s lost to the environment, so a farmer spends a lot of money to put that fertilizer in, it’s lost. and they never make the money back, so what to do about it? well you put a barrier there, a willow barrier in this particular case, that’s what we did in the field, and suddenly you actually get a dramatic reduction in the loss of nitrates that go in there and you actually sequester the nitrogen in the vegetation.
i don’t want to go too much into this data, but it works. it can work. the only problem is that you have a slightly longer season, and therefore you have a slightly higher water consumption. so all is good, and i think the system we’ve proved is working. what if we expanded this, and looked at all this kind of land? in a small watershed this is a working watershed, we work with farmers, so we do a lot of feedback with the farmers going in the indian creek watershed in livingston county, illinois about an hour and a half from here. and what if we changed from this to this:
and the red parts in there are all the land that fits the characteristics that we have in our field site. well, we would see that we would lose some of the corn production, and soybean production at the same time would increase dramatically the production of, in this particular case, switchgrass. so what to do with that? obviously, could we think of a way where we actually convert some of the corn that’s produced making ethanol into ligno-cellulosic switchgrass that can make some better fuel from it? can we think about forage switchgrass to replace some of the corn that goes for feed? about 40% of the corn that’s grown goes for feeding animals. so can we think of that?
but if we did that, then we would actually have much decreased sediment and nitrogen outputs in there, so we would improve our water, and incidentally, the same landscape that would be optimized for water quality would also provide us benefits in terms of pollinator nesting indices, so we would actually improve the livelihood of natural pollinators. so economically, this would actually be a good solution for farmers as well. if you think willows is not really a moneymaking endeavor, but if you substituted willow for the corn that we’ve already seen doesn’t grow very well, the opportunity cost is pretty good.
unless the corn is growing really well in that case it’s similar. but basically, there is a window of opportunity, and i should ask: why would a farmer ever grow that corn in that particular part of the field? and the answer is, subsidies and crop insurance, basically. so is there a better way to do it? they actually have a benefit in doing that, because what we have found is that the cost of our silly willows is really much better, probably, than some other conservation practices in there, so there could be an incentive. the big problem in there is that we don’t have a market for willows yet,
and you know, we need to develop these markets, and really find a way to do it. but i think that all in all it’s been proven that a system like this could actually be a lot more balanced and a lot more productive than what we have now. so in summary, really we have multiple needs to be addressed they all need to be addressed at the same time, and by doing that we really need to pull it up and really have a broader view, a higher observation point where we can really think of systems approach as engineers and scientists, and really think of the system and how we optimize that. and we need to develop markets, and we need evaluation of ecosystem services, and until we put a number value on the value of making clean water,
right? what society would pay for it, then we won’t have a system that works. but i think we are at the point that trading mechanisms are starting to begin, even for nutrients in there. so as scientists, what do we want to do, and where can we go with this? you know, particularly we need to be able to nest spatial scales, computational systems, and computer models that allow us to go from a small field to the farm, to the watershed, to the region, somehow the reverse from what joshua was talking about. and meet us somewhere in the middle: temporal scales, we go from the annual crops to perennials, to the scale of carbon accruals in soils.
precision agriculture, sensing networks, data driven research will improve our models greatly we have a tremendous amount of data that are generated, and finally, we probably have the ways to handle that data to get some meaningful information. and finally, we really need to be totally multi-disciplinary in this. we need to integrate supply-chains, markets, logistics, policy, economics, land ownership, the physical and the human landscape. and so that’s it, and you know it’s done because it’s the thank you slide. [applause] all the people have been working in the field with us. and our sponsors.
[q: i’d like to know what you think about gmos.] sorry? [q: genetically engineered corn and beans? how it plays into the nutrients, are they engineering this to use less nutrients? how does that work out?] so genetic engineering crops are part of the landscape already. particularly soybeans and corn are really heavily… you know, there’s many, many varieties that are genetically engineered. if you talk to monsanto, they think that it’s obviously the most important thing
that you can do to feed the world. there’s a lot of work that’s happening on trying to develop corn types, corn genotypes that are more resistant to drought, for instance, and things like that. i don’t know if they have studied entirely the impacts of this, but it’s not for me to say. so i don’t really have a particular… other than watching what’s going on, i don’t really have a particular opinion whether pro or con. [q: i’m unsurprised to hear that beef in particular has a lot of problems i guess i’m wondering how other possible meat sources compare, like salmon or rabbits or insects. you know, are those all also still terrible?
or how less terrible are they? joshua? is that for me? ok. [q: it’s for two of you, i think.] no, all other meat sources are significantly less terrible. and it’s definitely, beef is definitely the most resource intensive of large scale production. sheep and mutton, i think, is a relatively close second. you know, dairy can also be very, very resource intensive, depending on… there’s a lot of different factors that influence things.
of course, depending on what the feedstock is. are we talking about industrial farming, where the feedstock is, you know, corn and soy or distiller dried grains, as a byproduct from…are we talking about pasture cows, and things. so there’s a lot of ones, so i don’t necessarily want to say that cows are horrible, but certainly, absolutely, a lot of other meat sources are a lot less energy intensive than is meat and mutton. it’s the herbivore. did you want to add, cristina? it’s the herbivore physiology that has a really bad energy balance.
basically, because you have a lot of grass or feed to actually turn into meat. right. [q: so i thought the theme of food choices was really prevalent in all of the speakers, and one thing that kept coming back in my mind was all of these choices to have the highest quality highest sustainable foods, those options aren’t available for everyone. there’s a giant class issue that comes into play, whether it’s the ordinary to the elite classes in 15th century india to even food deserts in chicago, so i was wondering, anyone can answer this question, what would be a good start to get away from that imbalance, and to make food more available, better choices, healthier,
more sustainable choices available for everyone? consumption is always linked to political economy, right? into issues of power and access to resources. and that’s been true historically, as it is true now. you know, one difference between the sort of case study of the 14 to 16th century that i talked about and now, in the world that we live in, say, here in chicago, is that in the dry interior of southern india the elite cuisine was the one in a sense that had the most pervasive and significant kinds of environmental damage, and the highest energy costs. the dry farming of the poor, eating millet and so on, while it was also extremely risky,
people… this is not an ancient story, people are still doing this, very problematic in terms of livelihoods, also turns out to be very healthy, right? so one thing that i didn’t get a chance to talk about is there’s a kind of fascinating millet revival in india right now, southern india in partiuclar. where very, very affluent, elite, urban educated people are ‘going back’ in a sense to eating millet because they’re very healthy, or they’re seen as heritage grains because there’s a huge incidence of diabetes in south india, and doctors always tell their patients not to eat rice.
and that they should eat something like millet instead. so sometimes it’s actually the foods of the dispossessed which are more healthy than the foods of the affluent, which i think is something that joshua also mentioned in terms of things like per capita meat consumption and its relationship to income levels. so i mean, there’s no simple answer to that question, because it’s a question about the distribution of resources and access to income, and to power in a society, so the answer is going to be different for each place. well, just bringing that into the present day language, there’s certainly ways that we can reorganize our policy and subsidy structures in the food system in order to encourage
better food and better food access, especially in urban places. i mean, in rural places it’s true, where people are growing their own food they’re growing, a lot of times, in a more environmentally friendly and healthy food but in urban places sometimes the only thing that’s available is processed food, or the only thing that’s affordable is this highly processed food. and part of that is because of the way we’re subsidizing food. as was mentioned, the fact that big commodity crops like grains and soybean and things are subsidized, and in some ways, animal production is subsidized and if we could figure out ways, and i don’t have answers, so please don’t ask me a followup question
but if we can figure out ways to restructure some of that subsidy and spend some of that money in ways that will more equally distribute those healthy foods to places where it’s needed, i think that could be an important part of it. we should be more interested in the farm bill than we are. yes, exactly. but a lot of it is also education, and obviously education alone won’t increase the supply, right? but at least it will create a demand. perhaps. [q: question for cathryn, just for simple information. you talked about babies who were 4 months old
and showing allergies against milk, that means cow’s milk, or mother’s milk?] yes. [q: ok. so if you have babies that are born caesarean, but are only drinking mother’s milk, do you delay the problem, do you not see the problem? do you have data about that?] so if they’re not exposed to cow’s milk at all, they’re not going to have cow’s milk allergy yet. but we don’t see that breastfeeding is… even babies that are breastfed and vaginally delivered are susceptible to food allergies. so yes, that alone doesn’t explain the whole problem. [q: pretty broad question here. based on the agricultural methods that we use today has anyone calculated a carrying capacity of planet earth, using, say, the least efficient way we eat today
vs. the most efficient?] not anyone on this stage i’m guessing, unless you have, i don’t know. it’s estimated that we produce enough food globally today to feed the entire population now. and that with the most efficient diets, if a transition was made to the most efficient diets ie. you know, pseudo-vegan vegetarian diets, that with land in production today we could probably feed the 9 billion population that we’re expecting to have in 2050. so you could solve the entire problem in theory on the demand side by eliminating waste, by reducing diets in western countries to the levels that are actually…
to the amount of calories that are actually suggested, rather than too many, and reducing dramatically meat consumption. so you know, in theory, and in a perfect world where everyone’s a vegetarian, you could support 9 billion, probably 12 billion, just to randomly say a number, with expanded agricultural areas and other sorts of things. that might be a sort of a carrying capacity, if you will. that’s just a random number, though, so don’t write it down, or record it… this isn’t being recorded, is it? this won’t be on youtube, don’t worry. but with standard diets, and the diets that we assume we’ll have over the next several decades,
that would be significantly reduced. and again, i have serious questions, as i think my talk implied, about whether or not we can feed 9 billion people by 2050 under the current trajectories of diets and wealth that we have and especially with the stated goals of the united nations of reducing hunger and malnutrition in fact eliminating it within the next decade or two. you know, i think that’s going to be a really tough challenge, so. well particularly if you don’t want to convert land that’s already in some kind of natural state, right? you don’t want to obviously take down the amazon forest to make soybeans
you don’t want to deforest, take down some other forest, you don’t want to take away wetlands you cannot actually encroach on these kind of land uses. you need to stay with what you have. ideally. [q: in terms of food vulnerability in a changing climate, what do you see as being the more disruptive impact? is it steady state increases, or is it more the increased prevalence of extremes? well, it’s a little bit of a philosophical question, i’ll answer some quickly, and then let other people answer but it gets into a little bit of a philosophical question human beings have shown throughout thousands of years, i think it’s safe to say,
that they’re very, very good at adapting to slow changes. now granted, climate change, especially under sort of aggressive pathways, is going to be pushing us well outside of a global regime, environmental regime that we’ve ever experienced before but i could still say with a reasonable probability that if it was just a slow change that we had to adapt for, that we’d figure it out somehow. we’d have to change where we’re growing food, obviously canada’s going to become the new breadbasket, cotton’s going to be growing in iowa instead of in texas, you know, there’s going to be a lot of changes, but we’re human beings, that’s what we do, right? we adapt, we change.
but the increased variability, and the increased extreme events, that’s something that we have not shown a good ability to adapt to. we’ve done some work in our group that shows that if we were hit with another dustbowl now in the us, it would hurt us pretty much just as bad. yes we have agricultural insurance and we have all sorts of programs that would help save farmers from you know, having to move to california in complete destitution, etc. but it would still be just as devastating in terms of agricultural productivity. we really haven’t gotten any better at dealing with extreme drought or extreme weather more broadly. so i would personally say variability, but it is a bit of a philosophical question.