Hi, my name is Evan Fraser, and I'm the director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph. This is part of a regular podcast series on how to feed the future in a way that is healthy, sustainable, and nutritious.
As the world's population grows to an expected 10 billion by the end of 2050, and as global temperatures continue to rise, humanity will be faced with the challenge of providing sufficient food for all. A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change detailed how a changing climate will exacerbate existing risks to food systems and negative impacts caused by unsustainable land management, threaten the stability of food supply, increase food prices, and lower the nutritional value of certain foods.
Unfortunately, not only is our food system impacted by climate change, it also contributes to it. The same report states that around 25 to 30% of total greenhouse gas emissions stem from the food system. The majority of these arise specifically from agricultural activities 10 to 12%, from crops and livestock related activities within the farm gate, and eight to 10% from land use and land use changes. We are faced with the challenge of combating climate change of our food system, while also feeding a growing population.
So what might the future of food look like in a changing climate? In this episode, I turn the conversation over to Chelsea Major, a master's student in the Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics at the University of Guelph, Chelsea has a keen interest in the future of food and agriculture in the midst of climate change. Welcome, Chelsea.
Thanks, Evan, I'm really excited to have this opportunity to talk with researchers who do a lot of important work and thinking on food systems and agriculture. Food is so essential for us, but I feel like sometimes we take it for granted. After all, many of us are pretty removed from the food system. We don't think too much about all the steps involved before food arrives on our plate. Food researchers, though, do a lot of thinking about this, exploring a vast range of topics that affect our food systems. One topic that many are worried about climate change, and how it may impact agriculture and our food futures. At the same time, they're also concerned about the role agriculture plays in contributing to climate change.
Yeah, it's a tricky problem, because on one hand, we must be the growing population, but on the other, expanding our current food system to do so will contribute to the very conditions that will hamper its success. This can seem like a daunting problem. And it is, but it also presents an opportunity for innovation and widespread change in our food system.
Exactly. And there's so many ideas about what the future of food may look like. This is why I really wanted to talk with Dr. Sarah Rotz, an assistant professor in the Department of Social Science at York University, about her new book, Uncertain Harvest: The Future of Food on a Warming Planet. It looks critically at what some of these innovations for food systems could be. Now, Evan, I know that you're quite familiar with this book since after all, you are one of its co-authors alongside Dr. Rotz and Dr. Ian Mosby. So before we have a listen to my conversation with Sarah, would you mind talking a little bit about the motivation behind writing this book? And why do you think it is a story that needs to be heard right now.
So we all start thinking about Uncertain Harvest about three years ago, when Sarah and Ian and I started debating the future of food. And we were primarily motivated to explore issues around what we were going to eat in the future, how we were going to produce it. But that said, we actually didn't agree on very much, Sarah was extremely interested in issues around equity and sustainability. I'm totally interested in those as well. But I came at the whole conversation with perhaps a slightly more techno optimistic perspective, where Ian, who's a historian came at things from a long term historic perspective and relating trends that I was predicting back to things that had happened in the past. So we ended up deciding to write a book where we actually have the debate in the book itself. So we speak with our own voices, and in many places, we even disagree with each other.
Yeah, I think what makes me excited about this book is that it brings the perspectives of three very different scholars together to get a well rounded debate of possible food futures. Now let's take a listen to my conversation with Dr. Sarah Rotz as we discuss some of what she considers the key themes of the book: inequality, sustainability, and the importance of community-led solutions in the context of our food systems.
Thank you for joining me here today. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself before we get started?
Dr. Sarah Rotz 4:50
Yeah, so I did my PhD with Evan and that work really focused on critical investigation of the process of industrialization in our food system in Canada, and some of the economic and social pressures that they're facing with the rise of corporate concentration in the food system. And so that's how I got really into investigating food systems in the context of climate change and growing economic pressure. And then from there, I started working with Evan and Ian Mosby on this book project. Our interest was to understand what some of the key trends or some of the key issues in food politics are right now. And we have different opinions on things; we don't always agree. And so one of the key motivations for this book project was to actually tackle some of these key issues around like genetic modification, robotics and automation technology, and these major issues around economic inequity in the food system, food insecurity, climate change, environmental health, soil health, these big, big questions, knowing that we're not all always going to agree. So how can we actually work through and talk through these issues, the three of us, in a way that might be productive and helpful?
Can you talk to me about the choice of chapter titles for the book?
Dr. Sarah Rotz 6:15
Oh, yes, algae, caribou, kale. I think in a sense, we wanted to kind of make it look a little bit like we were focusing on a single food item or entity. But the reality is, once you actually read the chapter, it's much more complicated than that. And so I think that really is the point of what is seemingly a simplistic issue or a siloed issue, as we like to think about issues generally, you know, let's talk about the corn industry or the beef industry. And it's so much more complicated than that. And it's so much more deeply interconnected. And I think one of the saddest things that we've done as a society is siloed off our socio-ecological systems into these industries, when we know that that's really not the way that nature and even socio-ecological systems even work. And so I think we do show that in in the chapters where, in thinking that we're just going to talk about milk or millet, like, it actually is much more complicated than just milk or millet.
What are some of the biggest issues at the interface with food systems and climate?
Dr. Sarah Rotz 6:55
I'm gonna speak for myself, because I don't want to speak for Ian and Evan, but from my perspective, I would say one of the biggest issues is really inequity in the food system. And I think that is both at the farm scale, and reaches across the food system.
Dr. Sarah Rotz 7:39
When I speak about inequity, I'm not just talking about economic inequity for the farmer, which I mean, you know, the increase in costs to produce food, the increasing costs of land and seeds and things like that, but also social, racial inequity, gender inequity. And we're really seeing that rise happen across the food system, we know that, for instance, five companies control 90% of the global grain trade, or I'm pretty sure it's about 10 companies control over 50% of the global seed market. And even that four or five major players in the seed market are really taking over. And to put that in context, they just bought out Monsanto, or were merged with Monsanto, and in 2018, their sales reached almost $40 billion. That is equivalent, or actually exceeds the GDP of over 50% of the world's countries.
Dr. Sarah Rotz 8:38
And so I think when we talk about this food system, we have to be really clear about whose interests we've been supporting and at what costs and governments and our model of agriculture has been really, really good at supporting and subsidising these large companies at the expense of other interests. We know that there has been a significant reduction in the number of small and medium sized farmers over the past 50 years, and we also know that the size of farms has grown significantly over that same time, and so farmers are getting forced to get bigger, because their costs are rising. In order to stay competitive, they have to grow their land base. Meanwhile, the cost of land the price of land is getting more competitive and growing, because larger players are getting involved in food and farming, and corporate concentration is growing. We also have a public system that is supporting that growth. Then the question becomes at whose expense?
Dr. Sarah Rotz 9:40
And so the losers then become not only the soil and the water because farmers are essentially being forced to expand and intensify their production, use more pesticides and herbicides to produce a higher yield and that works at the expense of soil health and organic matter. And water health. And so we're seeing a decline and biodiverse habitats and naturalised areas. And then we're also seeing growth in the exploitation of farm workers. And farmers are in a situation where they feel as though that's their kind of only option. And that's really again, because of this larger squeeze that's happening on farmers that now are exploiting workers because they're feeling that pinch.
Dr. Sarah Rotz 10:27
It's no wonder then at the consumption end, where we see food insecurity in Canada, upwards of 13%. But we also know that that isn't equal, right? That operates along, obviously according to income, but also according to race. So Food Share Toronto just put out a really excellent report that showed that in Canada 10% of white households are food insecure. Meanwhile, 28% of black and around 30% of indigenous households are food insecure. The systemic barriers and imbalances all play into in equal dynamics around food access, as well as the consumption level. So inequity for me, and corporate concentration is really a huge factor here. Yeah.
Do you think that risk is growing with the changing climate?
Dr. Sarah Rotz 11:11
Well, I think that as companies become more resourced, and more empowered, and powerful, that they are able to access and make use of technological resources, automation resources, data as an asset and a resource. And in making use of that, then they become the ones who are able to make use of climate change, right. And folks, like Naomi Klein have talked about this for a really long time. And that's not a secret many, many, many, many companies have been scrambling to find ways to exploit land and resources, knowing that ice sheets are melting, water levels are rising, heat units are going to rise in the north. So there's all sorts of quote-unquote, opportunities that companies are observing and will, will be the most likely to be able to make use of.
Evan, I'm just going to pause here for a second. Sarah's pointed out the large issue of inequality that exists in our food system from the global scale right down to the household level. Considering the debating nature of the book, I'm curious, what do you think is one of the big issues at the interface of climate and food systems?
So this is a great conversation, Sarah is indeed really concerned with issues of equality and inequality in the food system, and I share those concerns. For instance, we have to acknowledge the fact that we live in this paradoxical world where both the number of hungry and the number of obese people is rising, illustrating that we not only are living in a world of haves and have nots, but a world of not enoughs and far too muches. With that said, I think the other major challenge facing the world right now is related to the environmental sustainability challenge. As noted already in this podcast, agriculture is a major driver of climate change. It is a huge driver of the loss of biodiversity, is one of the world's largest users of freshwater, and is the world's largest polluter of water. So what we need to do not only is make the world's food system more equitable, we also need to make it far, far more sustainable.
Thank you, Evan. Inequality definitely seems to be a persistent theme and sustainability is certainly also important. It's becoming clear trying to single out one problem isn't very reflective of the interconnectedness of issues in our food system. I'm actually reminded of what Sarah mentioned earlier about our tendency to silo off systems into separate components. I think that my question kind of fell into that trap. There's just so many things to think about, I wanted to get an idea of what some researchers considered most important. Now, there's certainly many different opinions on what the future of food should look like, and how we might arrive at it. But sustainability seems to be an enduring theme. Let's listen to what Sarah has to say about making our food systems more sustainable.
Dr. Sarah Rotz 13:52
In terms of like how our food system can become more sustainable, I think similarly, it makes me think of the... actually it makes me think of the Millet chapter. So in that chapter, we talk a lot about appropriate technologies, and we spend a lot of time with Manish Rosada, who is at the University of Guelph. He does, I don't want to get it wrong. He's a crop scientist, but works largely on genetics, but he works with farmers to come up with these low-cost low-tech solutions that really improve the lives of these small scale farmers and that are appropriate to the social conditions that they live in and economic conditions that they live in, instead of coming up with high tech solutions that will, in the long run, push farmers off the land because they can't afford those solutions. These kinds of solutions help them improve soil organic matter, improve the yield of their crop, reduce pests, and also just like it makes their lives easier. You know, he says like oftentimes farmers need at least 100 things before they need genetically modified seeds, right. And so I think when thinking about sustainable agriculture, that's really what I think about is all of the low cost, socially, culturally, ecologically, contextually specific solutions that can really help the lives of people who are on the land now, instead of focusing on, you know, these high tech, robotics, automation that really would require moving a lot of people off of the land in which we know, has been deeply, deeply problematic, violent and harmful for huge swaths of our population, both in Canada and globally speaking Nice. Yeah. So that's what I think about when I think about sustainable solutions. Yeah.
In Canada, we do know, as you said, with heat units increasing that there's going to be land opening up for agriculture, and what are what are some of the risks there?
Dr. Sarah Rotz 15:54
Well, I think the essence of that is that we're not listening, we are encouraged to exploit opportunities, instead of listening to what's happening with the land, and people that are on the land are telling us and are observing, and responding to that in a way that prioritises the social and ecological principles and boundaries of the capacity of these systems. I think the risk there is that instead of listening to what the needs or interests are of the land, say, in areas of the North, and trying to manipulate those conditions, in order to suit the interests of that industry, instead of listening to what the land is showing us, and responding in a way that supports ecologically specific space, place and the conditions within it. So it's this universalized model that we're trying to replicate across the globe. Instead of looking at what these different spaces places and people need, and then responding accordingly to support the well being of life, human and non-human, other than human life.
So it seems like we're approaching possible solutions or ideas on how to move forward in Uncertain Harvest.
Dr. Sarah Rotz 17:25
Yeah, so I think a couple of the moments where I felt most hopeful in thinking about solutions was really in the listening. And I think the moment when Ian Mosby and I went to the Yukon, to speak with Norma Kassi, who's part of the Vuntut Gwich'in Peoples in the Yukon. And she's done long standing work around community based research in the north. And what I heard her speak about, when we went there was all of the work that Indigenous youth are doing in their communities, both to understand what's happening ecologically in the spaces that they're living in. So both doing that community-based research, and then also using all of that understanding of their local contexts, to come up with community-based solutions that work for them socially, and also support the land ecologically. That might mean in one community that they might be able to do some kind of greenhouse, but it might not, right, it might mean something different. It's certainly not up to me to determine what those would be.
Dr. Sarah Rotz 18:35
But that's the point, I think us in the south, and decision makers in the south, and policymakers in the south need to listen and support. I think trying to come up with solutions. I mean, we've seen things like Nutrition North, right, the absolute failure of these, frankly, paternalistic assumptions, that we have the solution, and that we can just insert Southern solutions into really, really different contexts, and contexts that have evolved because of colonisation, and because of the effects of colonisation. And the ways in which the settler colonial government in Canada has violently removed nations of people from land and dispossessed them of a way of life and culture, ritual, ceremony and things like that. And it's not to say that, that means that those don't exist anymore. Of course, indigenous peoples and communities are doing that work to revive their communities and to be on the land in the way that works for them. And so I guess, in terms of, quote unquote, government actions, I think the best thing that government can really do right now is listen and support that work being done.
Dr. Sarah Rotz 19:50
And it might be, you know, it's happening in very small ways in terms of government money being used, but I still see for the most part, government money being used to support and subsidise agricultural industry. And so I'm not seeing that shift happening yet. And I really do think that this shift in financial support needs to be quite significant. Like, you know, right now, even just organics right? As we show in the book, there's actually very little monitoring that the government does in terms of showing really how much the government is supporting organic industry. And really, it's actually very little. relative to conventional industry, the government does not heavily support organic research organic production. And so no wonder people talk about the economic competitiveness of our conventional agricultural system and that we need to maintain that. Well, that's because we're feeding into it, right. And it's the same thing with fossil fuels, right? Like if we were to really meaningfully transition and support the transition, that transition would happen. And then we would have, we would be able to invest and focus on that transition industry, that renewable industry and I think the same can be said here.
I really enjoyed listening to what Sarah had to say. I think she hit on some very important topics that are essential to consider when thinking about our food system. While there's clearly a need for a lot of problem solving surrounding inequality and sustainability, especially in a changing climate, it seems like there's a lot of determination to find solutions. And this doesn't just involve academics. What gives me hope is seeing the rise in recognition of community-led initiatives and activism and people pushing to ask important questions of what our future might look like as it relates to climate and food systems.
I also really liked what Sarah said about hope being in the listening, I think that statement sums up her message for the whole podcast. So many of the problems we are experiencing are result of not listening to the land, to the soil, or to the right people. And now with climate change, it's getting harder for us to ignore them. It's well past time we start listening. When we do feel it's our time to speak, we should still pause and listen so as to not speak over others who deserve a voice. Maybe you need to figure out if we should be the one speaking in that context at all. And then if we do decide to speak, we should listen still to those who think differently, so that we too can have productive conversations that can hopefully lead to solutions we can act on. Thanks, Evan, too, for your insight and for this opportunity to join in on this conversation that I think is so important. There really are so many different things to think about that makes the world of food research and agriculture such a diverse and intriguing field. I think we're approaching a future full changes.
So thanks for a great discussion. There's so many overlapping elements that will complicate our global food system under climate change. We are challenged with the task of providing food to a population expected to grow to around 10 billion people by the end of 2050 while meeting climate change goals. Effective policy will definitely be an essential tool to navigating the changes to come.
You have been listening to the Feeding 9 Billion podcast. To learn more about food security or to incorporate food security into your classroom, please visit our website at feeding9billion.com. This podcast is supported in part by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Canada Research Chair program.