hans groen *17 09 1959 - †11 08 2022

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ten billion mouths

Ten billion mouths is a volume written by researchers of Wageningen University and Research which contains the current pioneering ideas concerning the question of how to produce healthy and sustainable food for the earth’s population. In 41 short essays we read about circular agriculture, dairy farming, seaweed, water management, improving photosynthesis, land use, small holders, blockchain, insects, veganism, and much more. The discussion addresses also the ever-changing circumstances and challenges due to climate change, geopolitical developments, economic development, etc. It is clear that there is no panacea for the question of how to feed the people on the earth, as the editors say in the introduction.

The editors Ingrid de Zwarte and Jeroen Candel conclude that the question is not so much as to how we produce enough for the people of the world in 2050, the horizon for this volume. It is rather how we can provide enough healthy food while respecting our planet and the humans and animals that live on it. They see five elements that surface in the essays. First, we need to establish a circular food system, reusing leftovers, manure, and recycling of valuable nutrients such as sulfur and phosphor. Second, we should make better use of the potential of nature with mixed crops, the use of bacteria to regenerate soil, and other ways of combining agriculture in a healthy ecosystem. Third, there is technological innovation in breeding crops that are more resistant to diseases and climate change, or blockchain technology for transparency in the food chain. Fourth, we need knowledge of what actually moves actors in the food system, so we can nudge producers and consumers towards better choices. And lastly, there is the insight that we are facing a global challenge where solutions are interconnected all over the world.

Summarizing such diversity is impossible. Having been part of the foodFIRST organizing committee, I would like to highlight some material of this volume around three issues: (1) food waste; (2) land use; and (3) consumers’ choice or lifestyle.

(1) What I (still) find intriguing and fascinating is that we produce enough food for all the people of the world despite that about 30% to 40% is wasted on the road from farmland to dinner table. The most recent figures show (p. 236) our agriculture produces a total of 4600Kcal per person per day. 1400Kcal is lost post harvest, in distribution, and by the consumer. 1700Kcal is fed to animals, giving us 500Kcal in return. For you and I, that leaves (4600-1400-1700+500) 2000Kcal per person per day, which is the advised average for the total population. When we see hunger is still not ended and obesity goes rampant, and hunger neighbours obesity, in the ‘West’ as well as in the big cities of Africa, the conclusion is that the calories are in the wrong place. The first challenge is thus to distribute better the calories over the world’s population.

(2) A completely lossless chain from land to dinner table is most likely impossible. As it stands, we need about 40% of the available land surface for producing our food (p.29). Using land for growing crops for animal food is a fairly inefficient strategy: 1700Kcal from crops gives back only 500Kcal back in meat. Using arable land for growing biomass to be used as fuel is, in my opinion, even worse. Agriculture finds itself competing with land use for wind energy or solar energy. And the world’s ten billion people need houses, buildings where they work, and space where they can play. However, with competing land uses, it is unrealistic to opt for a diet completely without animal sources. There is land where only grass will grow and nothing else, and which is also not directly fit for building houses (the Dutch green polders are an example). Ruminants (cows, sheep, goats) eat grass and their milk and meat provide a source of high nutritional value. And pigs and chicken make good use of all the parts of vegetables we do not consume and the grains that fall off the table. These animals have an important contribution towards a circular food chain. And when kept extensively, they provide entertainment for the city dwellers as well.

(3) The scale at which we grow cattle for dairy products and meat is damaging the earth. It is catering for an ‘obesogene environment’ (p. 283) connected with the middle class lifestyle that is spreading to all over the world, from Amsterdam and New York to Nairobi and Lagos. What lifestyle will these ten billion people have in 2050? In order to (re)distribute the calories we produce at the farms of the world, we need to change the lifestyle of the consumers. This is talking about nudging and consumers’ choice. Here I have doubts about the analysis in this volume. When talking about consumer’s choice, which choice are we discussing, and what do we think the consumer is choosing? I think it is a hard fact that people choose with their wallet. That was not a problem when the housewife had the choice at the butcher, cheapest till dearest, between horse, pork, and meat. But choosing between ‘normal’ and organic meat or three levels of quality of life for chicken and pigs adds complications after someone has chosen already for having pork chops. Which choice do we want to nudge towards an alternative? Whatever we nudge, the choice for organic meat or not will be made with the wallet, and the impact of that choice for our common well being is not insignificant, but also no decisive. For the future of our planet, we need to change the choice for ‘chicken today, pork tomorrow, beef the day after, mutton next’ on a daily basis. How do we get ourselves to change our dietary habits, and prevent others from following this path of modernization?

This volume contains multiple insights that are necessary to prevent us from doggedly following simplistic fixes and panaceas. I would like to add that as long as we see food as a commodity with which to create shareholder value (Nestlé, Unilever, Kraft, and all those food multinationals on the stock market), feeding ten billion mouths might be an impossible task. The dairy farmer in The Netherlands and the coffee farmer in Kenya share the same predicament: they get a small price for their produce and others make the profits. It does not help to cut out the middle man for there is a middle crowd of vested economic and financial interests that use agriculture for their own profit and want to be served with priority. When exogenous interests take priority, the intrinsic goals of an activity are damaged, even virtually annihilated. That is what we saw in 2007 when money instead of labour appeared to have been used to produce economic and monetary value. Maybe it would help if ‘just earning a living’ instead of ‘making profit’ is being reinstituted in the worldwide food industry.

Ingrid de Zwarte & Jeroen Candel (eds.): 10 miljard monden. Hoe we de wereld gaan voeden in 2050. Amsterdam, Prometheus, 2020.

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