Thought for Food Summit: The Current Story Defined

A little over a week ago now, a friend and I made the trip to Lisbon to attend the Thought for Food Summit 2015. I have been living in Spain for the past few months, and Lisbon is only a couple of hours drive away, so when a friend told me about the conference I was interested enough to make the trip. And, while I may have had my doubts about it (particularly when we found out the primary conference sponsor was Syngenta), I have to say that I’m glad that I did, although perhaps not for the reasons I would have expected.

From the start, it was clear that this conference had some serious money behind it. It felt very American. There were cameras everywhere. The arrival of new speakers was heralded by ear piercing rock and pop music. There were performance artists wandering around a set that was almost entirely made of cardboard. The food was lavish and delicious. Everything about it was slick.

The conference began with a keynote speech from Nicolas Haan from Singularity University in California, where he asked us: ‘What is your moonshot?’ That is, what is your most outrageously ‘out there’ idea for feeding the world? But the most interesting comment Nicolas made in my view, a comment that came to represent the entire theme of the conference for me, was when he said:

“Nature is no longer in control, we are.”

Now, to be fair to Nicolas, given how he framed this comment, I actually agree with him. Because he followed up this statement with the (now) famous picture of planetary boundaries. That is to say, he backed up his nature is no longer in control statement with the evidence that humanity has already pushed beyond certain planetary boundaries.

The difference in our views relates to how we set about dealing with this reality. And it was for this reason that I am so glad that I decided to attend the Thought for Food Summit.

Contestants aside, and some of the Universities did put forward some fascinating and inspiring food system solutions, the entire conference was set up around the central theme, or story, that only technological solutions can feed the world. The strange thing, I guess, is that I was in any way surprised about this. It is, after all, the current story that underpins our entire approach to conventional agriculture.

And I am not for a second suggesting that this was some form of perverse corporate backed propaganda. The people articulating these views actually believe them. Sometimes just as passionately as I choose to believe in a different view.

I have been on a sustainability path for some time now. Most of my friends are also on it. I attend conferences and talks grounded in ecological thinking. I read books and watch documentaries grounded in ecological thinking. So much so, that it’s easy to forget that I am the weird one. It is me who stands on the fringe arguing, sometimes shouting – THERE IS ANOTHER WAY!

The Thought for Food conference was exactly the slap in the face I needed. As I sat listening to representatives of Monsanto and Syngenta, and the grand daughter of Norman Borlaug (the father of the ‘Green Revolution’), host a ‘discussion’ on the benefits of GMO, all I could think was – my role is to tell the other story.

The GMO talk itself was embarrassing. The panel asked the group to put up their hands if they were for or against GMO. While nowhere near the entire group said they were for, my friend and I were the only hands against.

It has been over two and a half years since I’ve worked on the issue of GMO, but the arguments of the industry are still exactly the same. In the space of two minutes, Golden Rice and Mark Lynas had both been mentioned.

The only thing interesting about Mark Lynas is just how famous he became for switching from the environmental movement to Monsanto. As I told the group, for every Lynas, I can find you a hundred who have gone the other way. Myself as a case in point. I studied conventional agriculture, I worked for an agricultural chemical company, yet I ended up at Greenpeace. But do you think the media is interested in that story? Where’s the money in it? Where’s the agenda?

As for Golden Rice, this is a classic example of reductionist thinking trying to solve a problem caused by – you guessed it – reductionist thinking. The problem of Vitamin A deficiency stems directly from a lack of diversity in the diet. Specifically, it stems from a lack of access to foods naturally high in beta-carotene, such as sweet potatoes, carrots and green leafy vegetables. We don’t need to genetically engineer rice to have beta-carotene; we need to work with local farmers to ensure there is a diversity of food crops being produced – locally.

One of the main reasons that many poorer countries have seen a reduction in the diversity of food crops available for consumption relates to changes in the production mix towards commodity crops, such as rice. With this knowledge in mind, it’s astonishing that the best answer we can come up with is to genetically engineer beta-carotene into a commodity crop. But we are doing it because it suits an agenda desperate to show that GMOs are more than just vehicles to carry pesticides and glyphosate resistance – as is currently the case.

My thinking about agroecology and a new food story may not be quite as naive as I alluded to at the start of this piece. Even the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation is beginning to wake up to the term, hosting a conference under that name at the end of 2014. This makes it even more fascinating that, given the theme of the Thought for Food conference, the term agroecology never got a single mention.

I guess the reasons for this are explained this this piece I wrote recently – Agroecology: the capitalist elephant in the room. In simple terms, there is nothing to sell when it comes to agroecology. The objectives are to teach farmers to farm, largely using the resources available to them. Who is going to drive this agenda in the market system?

So here we come back to the stories we tell ourselves. The current story. The story so clearly articulated at the Thought for Food conference. It is a story of man in control. A business as usual approach that simply cannot read the writing on the wall.

But there is another story. It is a story of complexity and diversity. Of nature in control. A story of systemic change. Away from corporations and towards people. It’s the only story I’m interested in telling and I am thankful to the Food for Thought conference for reminding me of just how important the work of telling this story is.

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  1. Christine

    Thanks for this interesting piece, and thanks for coming to the TFF Summit! I’d love to talk more about your experiences there and this perspective (Skype?) In no way is TFF an organization pushing an agenda, we are only here to inspire a new generation to get involved in thinking about the issues and taking action in their own way to change the world. And we are glad you were there to represent your point of view!!! There was a session on GMOs, yes, (with the intention to have a debate about the topic)… and, there were also sessions on producing locally, creating food security utopias, low-input urban ag, in-vitro meat and MUCH more. We wanted to showcase the breadth of innovation (not just technological, but also social!) happening all over the world, and which is led by young people! The theme of the Summit was “What’s Your Moonshot” to convey our belief that every person is capable of moonshot, paradigm-shifting thinking and audacious action. At TFF, we take no position on the solutions per se, we simply want to explore all of the rich and complex issues surrounding the fascinating topic of food security… and agro-ecology is a topic we care about and would love to explore more! (BTW – as you know, agro-ecology is not associated with any one particular method of farming, AND is also considered quite innovative!!) Also, at TFF, we don’t want to vilify any player involved in food security…we want to bring all of our worlds together (young people, students, corporations, investors, policymakers, scientists, etc) to build bridges of support and understanding — because this issue is waaaaay to complex for one person, institution or ideology to solve. Also, we don’t just focus on the elites or established players to solve the food crisis. We pull together next generation leaders from a variety of disciplines because “youth drives innovation… always has, always will.” Hope that makes sense. Oh yeah and regarding our flashy decor and music, this was new for this year… TFF is all about energy. We keep the energy high over the two days to get the best out of everyone who joins, with evocative talks, creative workshops, music, DJs, and fresh, healthy food. Let’s talk more!!

  2. Profile photo of Richard Author

    Hi Christine, thanks so much for your comment. I would love to talk with and will email you separately from this response. I want to be clear that it was not my intention to be critical of the Thought for Food Summit. If I have a criticism, it is only the lack of clearly focussed discussion on ecological solutions as a legitimate component of the ‘feeding the world discussion’. I realise this is very hard. Having an agroecology expert like Miguel Altieri from the University of California, would, in my view, have added another dimension to the conference. But, at the same time, he is directly contradicting the positions of many of your sponsors and speakers, so it’s extremely challenging to hold both positions together.

    What’s more, and this is the biggest problem that we (on the ecological solutions side) face, you will struggle to find sponsors from an agroecology aligned position. As I explored in the Agroecology article that is linked in the piece, the capitalist system will always push for technological solutions. Not because it’s evil or some big conspiracy, but because that’s just how the system works.

    That’s why I’ve have become so interested in this theme of the stories that we tell ourselves. And I am very genuine in my gratitude to the TFF summit for reminding me of just how important it is to tell the other story. Not because organisations like TFF are biased. But because the system will not naturally promote these stories on its own.

    So, once again, thanks for taking the time and being interested enough to leave a comment. I really look forward to taking this discussion further.


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