How to feed the world

The first Visionary Conversations talk of 2014 was held at the University of Manitoba’s Fort Garry campus last week. This time, an interdisciplinary panel of current and former faculty discussed the impending problem of feeding a packed planet: at nine billion mouths to feed, who will get fed first?

Featured speakers included Digvir Jayas, vice-president (research and international) and distinguished professor in biosystems engineering; Karin Wittenberg, associate dean (research) and professor of animal science; and Vaclav Smil, distinguished professor emeritus in the Clayton H. Riddell faculty of environment, earth, and resources. Each of the three shared their ideas on how to feed the world as the population presumably booms and resources begin to deplete.

Jayas focused on the minimization of agricultural waste. Wittenberg talked about the need for farmers to adapt new technologies to their local contexts. Smil denied that a population boom was underway at all.

“The title ‘Global Population Boom’ is wrong,” said Smil.

“We’ve been decelerating in relative terms, the global population, since 1967, and in absolute terms since 1987.”

Smil went on to argue that most countries produce more food per capita (in kilocalories) than required to feed their populations, and that the solution to the problem of feeding the world would come from cutting waste and re-evaluating distribution.

“We need to make sure that people have access to food in places like India, parts of rural China, and large parts of the Middle East [ . . . ] mind you, even in the U.S., 49 million people are on food stamps and they produce 3,700 kcal [of food] per capita. You will not increase access to food by increasing the production of food,” he told the audience.

Questions from the audience focused on the 100-Mile Diet (mocked by Smil and supported by Wittenberg), anthropocentrism and the loss of biodiversity during food production, and the cruelty of sow stalls.

The final audience questioner of the night, U of M English professor Dana Medoro, took aim at Wittenberg and the department of animal science, criticizing Wittenberg’s financial connections to Manitoba Pork. Medoro volunteers with the Winnipeg Humane Society (WHS) investigating the confinement of farm animals.

“In Manitoba, the public has produced tens of thousands of signatures opposing the confinement of farm animals. We brought those signatures to the U of M, which is a public institution, and asked a researcher here, ‘how can we change this?’ How does this industry change? [ . . . ] We’re talking about vast numbers of farm animals in cages in warehouses as we speak. How do we begin to change that, because I understand Dr. Barnard said you won an award from Manitoba Pork. So how can I reach you without their influence?” asked Medoro, inciting applause from the audience.

In the past, Medoro has published articles in the Manitoban critical of the Manitoba pork industry, one of which prompted a response from animal science department head Laurie Connor.

Series still well-received

Consistently well-attended from the beginning, the Visionary Conversations series has since expanded into the digital world, taking questions from Twitter, and partnering with CBC Radio. According to John Danakas, director of marketing communications at the U of M, working with CBC will help the series achieve its goals as a community outreach initiative.

“The goal of the Visionary Conversations has always been to share U of M expertise with respect to current issues with the wider public,” said Danakas.
“Having a media partner like CBC helps us reach a larger audience and an engaged audience.”

U of M president David Barnard, in a statement to the Manitoban, also emphasized the importance of sharing the school’s attributes with the general public.
“Visionary Conversations was intended to raise in the general public an awareness of the university as a place where informed opinion on current and complex subjects exists, and where informed debate about these matters can occur,” said Barnard.

In 2012, the U of M was presented with an award from the Canadian Council for the Advancement of Education, recognizing Visionary Conversations as the “best community outreach initiative” from any university in Canada.

“We’re very proud of Visionary Conversations and what it has been able to achieve, and we hope we can keep it interesting and appealing to audiences for as long as possible,” said Danakas, when asked about the future of the lecture series. He added that there are no plans to change the format of the events.

“The question period is longer than you’re going to find in most types of events like this, and that is intentional [ . . . ] for the most part, the aspect of Visionary Conversations being a conversation and including as many people as possible, and different perspectives, is one that has been retained and we think we will retain into the future.”

The next Visionary Conversations event will be held Wednesday, Mar. 12 at the Robert B. Schultz lecture theatre. The topic will be “What have we learned from Mandela? Race and ethnic relations around the world and here at home.”