How Should We Grow Food in the Future?

In Ghana, cocoa is the main source of income for 800,000 small-scale farmers. 25 percent of cocoa farmers are women. But this vital industry is also contributing to high levels of deforestation. Since 2014, the UNDP has distributed over 800,000 seedlings to nearly 10,000 cocoa farmers, of which 21 percent were women. Once grown, the trees will serve to shield the cocoa plants from sunlight, keep the soil moist during dry seasons, and rehabilitate 8,500 hectares of forest. Photo courtesy of the United Nations Development Programme.

Walmart entering your home to stock your fridge with groceries, Amazon dropping Whole Foods hauls at your doorstep via drone, plant-based meat that “bleeds”—if this is increasingly how we’re eating in 2017, what can we expect in 2020? 2050? And given a growing world population and climate change concerns, which of these innovations do we actually need?

These are the big questions we’re exploring on November 3-4 at Food Loves Tech (FLT): our all you can eat and drink Industry City expo where you can test drive food technologies from field and sea to next gen frontiers. We’ll also have expert panels answering some of the most pressing issues facing our food supply including one entitled “how should we grow food in the future?”

Andrea Egan covers the global adaptation portfolio for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and focuses on climate change and food security. The UNDP recently released a cookbook called Adaptive Farms, Resilient Tables: Building Secure Food Systems and Celebrating Distinct Culinary Traditions in a World of Climate Uncertainty. Through traditional recipes, the cookbook explores how climate change is impacting the types of food that people grow and eat in six countries, and celebrates the people who produce and prepare that food. As we approach Food Loves Tech, we talked to Andrea about rural livelihoods around the globe, and scalable tools that can help communities adapt to a changing climate.

Edible Brooklyn: Can you tell me about your work with the UNDP?
Andrea Egan: One of the most beautiful things about the UNDP, but also what renders it quite complicated, is that a lot of the projects we work on are community driven, leaving the autonomy to a community to say what is their biggest focus. I just came back from Papua New Guinea, where they were saying coastal erosion and mangroves. And then it immediately became related to fishing—to this ecosystem that has been disrupted because the mangroves have been cut down. Every time I start teasing apart what is happening in a project, I realize there is such a complicated ecosystem in each area.

EB: Do you see consistency in the challenges climate change poses to food security across the globe, or is it more context-dependent?
AE: For the six countries featured in the cookbook we did—Haiti, Mali, Niger, Sudan, Cambodia, and Cabo Verde—there are so many things that are universal about how climate change is impacting farming. Erratic rainfall, changing weather patterns, drought, soil erosion. Whether it is soil erosion in Uganda or salt water inundation in Fiji, farmers who used to know when to plant and what to plant are now saying that what we used to do isn’t working, or it’s yielding smaller crops. We have such lessons to learn from each other in different contexts.

EB: What are some of the adaptation strategies to improve food security that are particularly exciting for you?
AE: Sometimes the simplest interventions are the ones that can be scaled most rapidly, and that hold a lot of utility. Whether it’s rainwater harvesting, or pest management techniques, or food storage, or having an individualized farming plan for a family or a community. Things that seem not very sophisticated, but then can be replicated in another community with minor tweaks. One tweak that surprised me was in Sudan, where they had a vacuum sealing for the produce they had grown to give it a longer life span. It’s a basic food preservation technique that let them have longer food security.

In Mali and Cambodia and Niger, I was so surprised at how much these efficiencies can transform women’s lives. In a lot of these countries, women are tasked with collecting water and with the bulk of the farming duties. We did this whole gender series after we did the cookbook, because I wanted to understand hour by hour what does this mean for a girl in Niger the six hours a week when she’s not collecting rainwater. We were looking at how many more girls were in school, or how many more women in Cambodia were running for office. That for me was really cool, watching how water management and farming can transform the role that women play in their societies.

EB: What is something that you bring back to the U.S. from your experiences in other parts of the world?
AE: I think that in the U.S. we forget how much is grown by hand; how much labor is involved in growing food. The farmers everywhere that I interview, I’ll ask them, “show me your tools.” A few times they kind of don’t understand the question, and they just show me their hands. When you remember that human hands touch the food we eat, it’s just this powerful reminder about how fragile it is to feed the people on our planet. So when we think of 50% of Somalia right now facing food insecurity, it seems really overwhelming. But we live on a planet where we grow enough that we all can eat, and it’s just a matter of making sure that other structures are in place so that we all can eat good food.