Louise Fresco: the incomplete truth about food production and food security

Louise Fresco: the incomplete truth about food production and food security

Liesbeth Van Meulder
Liesbeth Van Meulder
Program Advisor public & private sector

Will there be algae tagliatella on our plates, combined with some insect chips, lab produced milk and fresh home-grown tomatoes from our rooftop kitchen garden? The question about our food future concerns many of today’s food experts, civil actors, policy makers and academics. Louise Fresco is one of them. As a food expert of the University of Wageningen she has been honoured by the University of Leuven for her groundbreaking research on this topic. In return she took us on a journey to our Foodture by sharing her experience, research and dreams.

One thing is clear from the beginning: how we will feed the future generations is a complex topic and calls for multi- angle, systematic solutions. Fresco’s discourse opens a debate on food, based on scientific facts and meanwhile accepting the complexity of the problem and solution.

We’re talking about food, not agriculture

By 2050, the world population is expected to surpass 9 billion people, of who 2/3th will live in cities. This trend of urbanization, combined with a general rise in incomes will change consumption patterns. More people, more mouths to be fed, more demand for calories and animal proteins. Given these facts, production will need to rise if we want to fulfill in the calorie need of all these citizens.

According to Fresco, that's not a mission impossible. Our agricultural system already made significant progresses the last century, thanks to land expansion, intensification and technological innovation. Fresco reminded us that only a hundred years ago, half of the population lived in food insecurity, whereas now most of us have access to enough food.

However, this achievement came with severe negative consequences for the environment and the health of many people. The so-called double burden illustrates this well: today, 800 million people are still undernourished, while at the same time 2 billion people suffer from low protein intake and another 1.8 billion face serious weight issues (like obesitas).

The problem thus is bigger than just agricultural production. Our whole food system requires a rethink: the way we produce and the way we consume.

“Malnutrition and obesity are two sides of the same coin, meaning that we do not cope well with scarcity or abundance of food.“

Louise O. Fresco

Towards a diverse agricultural landscape

In the debate on food and agriculture, there’s a tendency to polarize between different agricultural models, warns Fresco. Large vs. small scale; industrial agriculture vs. family farming. Attributes like ‘authenticity and ‘natural’ resonate well with consumers and echo the longing for a farming system based on small scale, local and an traditional production methods. Although Fresco is thrilled by the idea of local farmer markets or urban agriculture, it is – given our consumption patterns – impossible to feed the world in this way only. The challenges that large cities as Mumbai of Lagos will face in the future, are tremendous. For these markets small scale farming is not sufficient and local markets are not at their disposal.

What does Louise Fresco suggests then?

First of all, it is not a case of ‘either – or. Fresco sees a diverse landscape, where each model finds its place: urban farming, large scale industrial agriculture, smallholder family farming, agroecology,... Best practices and inspirational innovations can be shared and will influence each other. Secondly, Fresco observes an over-romanticized public perception of farming, often combined with an aversion of technology.

Never in history have we been able to feed so many people with so few working in agriculture. Thanks to the mechanization of agriculture and the availability of food everywhere, we do not have to worry about the food on our plate this evening. It freed our hands to do other things.

Why should we hold back people in developing countries from going through the same transition? “If we can replace annoying tasks as picking vegetables by robots, should we not? It is important to open the debate on scientific grounds and not to be oblivious to the privileges we have obtained.”

Fresco observes a similar negative attitude towards the food industry, which developed very rapidly over the last decades because of consumers’ demand for more identical, easy consumable, low cost products. Processors, for instance have become, indispensable nowadays - few people are willing to bake their own bread. And contrary to what one might expect, they often operate in a more sustainable way than we can at home in our own kitchen. “Take the example of a can of tomato soup. Thanks to the industrial processing methods, tomatoes are cooked faster and at a higher temperature. This results in higher nutritional values and reduced energy consumption than 'authentic' home-made soup.”

Dreams for the future

How will this diverse sustainable food landscape look like in the future? “Cities will interweave agriculture with an urban landscape: rooftop gardens, livestock breeding in open places, greenhouses that provide residential areas of food and green energy in the same time, … In large scale agriculture further innovative models of production will we implemented while minimizing and mitigating impact on environment: smart irrigation, the use of bio pesticides or cover crops for healthier soils, the use of insects as animal fed and so on. In the end, ecosystems should be closed.”

Fresco sees a large potential for further research on algae and biogenetics. "Algae is a food of the future. Besides the positive health effect of algae consumption (full of omega 3 and proteins), it is also a source of natural oils and enzyms, applicable in chemical industry. Methods to grow algae on a large scale are being developed, but are far from perfect. Besides food production, agriculture could also gain a new function in society in the search for substitutes of fossil fuels. At last, there are interesting progresses in the areas of biogenetics and breeding techniques which needs to be further examined.”

The largest production improvements should however be seen in regions where population growth will explode: Sub-Saharan Africa. There is a lot of potential for productivity gains by applying already known technology, inputs or better soil management. “Today, only 4% of African soils is irrigated, compared to 40% in China." By improving distribution and storage infrastructure, 25% of the production which is now wasted at harvest, could be saved.

Smallholders in developing countries need to be linked to inclusive markets and better inputs. To achieve this, governments and institutions like the World Bank need to invest in the agricultural sector as a whole – not only in production. “It’s absurd that cacao is exported from Africa, to be processed into chocolate in Europe, and in the end is re-imported into Africa”

What about the consumer?

By changing our eating habits, we could have a real impact on the food chain and even on the food system as a whole. Again, one silver bullet solution doesn’t exist, and solving the food problem is unfortunately not as easy as solely eliminating one or two products from our diet.

Consumers are willing, but above all they are confused by all the do’s and don’ts of food ‘experts’ and food gurus

Take meat example for example. Meat is a main driver of the increasing demand in food. We will need to shrink our consumption and look for a diversification of our protein intake. But this does not mean that older people, children – in need for proteins, can no longer eat meat. And in some areas, livestock breeding is the only form of agriculture possible (e.g. wet areas, steppe where arable farming is impossible) and has an important function.

But if Fresco would express only one dream, it would be about the consumer. We, consumers, have forgotten about the value of food. We take it for granted. This alienation from our own food makes us indifferent to the real value and price of products, and to the people producing it on a daily base.

Food is about respect. Care for what you eat. Be aware of what is on your plate, how it got there and how much you value it. Understand that you are a part in this chain.

Louise O. Fresco