Science - November 17, 2011

Feeding the world

Text:
Joris Tielens

How can we continue to feed the fast-growing world population? This was the question at the heart of the global series of conferences organized by the alumni association KLV in honour of its jubilee this year. In China, Brazil, Ethiopia and the Netherlands, local Wageningen alumni put their minds to the increasingly pressing issue of the global food supply.

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The results were evaluated on Friday 11 November at the final conference in the Junushof theatre in Wageningen. A ‘world government' of Dutch luminaries presented and commented on the collection of proposed solutions the conferences generated. The almost 350 alumni who attended the closing conference formed the ‘parliament' which commented via twitter and text messages and voted on the proposals. An overview.

The world government:
- Sylvia Borren (Greenpeace)
- Rudy Rabbinge (Wageningen UR)
- Gerda Verburg (FAO)
- Harry Smit (Rabobank)

[1. From Wageningen]
Throw less food away
One third of the food produced worldwide is lost or ends up in the garbage bin. In developing countries the post-harvest waste is due to inadequate storage and processing facilities; in rich countries it is because cucumber that are too bent or bananas that are too straight are chucked out by the supermarkets. Or because consumers don't test with their taste-buds but discard anything that's past its sell-by date. Toine Timmermans, researcher at Fresh Foods and Chains and project leader at the Top Institute Food & Nutrition proposed that the food industry, scientists and consumers should join forces to combat needless waste. This proposal got the most votes.
[2. From Wageningen]
Eat less meat
Meat production requires much more land, water and inputs than the production of grain or vegetables. If we are to have enough food to feed the future population, we must eat less meat, concluded the 275 students at the student conference of the Euro League for Life Sciences, held on 20 and 21 October. Airen Lugt represented them at the KLV conference. And how are we to achieve this? ‘Eating meat should become as frowned-on as smoking.'
[3. From Beijing, China]
Better seed through genomics
Food production has got to go up, and one of the key factors is good seed, said Professor Sanwen Huang of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Traditional plant-breeding is a time-consuming business, which could be speeded up through genomics. Research on the genome of potatoes, rice or other food crops provides insight into which genes are crucial to the improvement of crops, and this speeds up the breeding process. Huang received a lot of votes for his proposal, the favourite with the ‘world government'.
[4. From Beijing, China]
Cooperatives in China
The Netherlands has organized its agriculture very well, Sanwen Huang told his audience flatteringly. Cooperatives and product boards put Dutch farmers in a better position on the global market than Chinese farmers. In China, small farmers sell their goods to middlemen who take a big cut of the profits. Farmers in China should organize themselves in cooperatives and sell directly to the supermarkets: this was Huang's second proposal, which came out of the conference of Wageningen alumni held in Beijing on 25 June. This proposal went down well with both the audience and the ‘world leaders' present at the conference.
[5. From Wageningen]
Reduce our ecological footprints
Hans Lyklema is emeritus professor of Physical Chemistry and Colloid Science, and not a behavioural scientist. Nevertheless, the still outspoken 80-year-old declared at the closing KLV conference that behaviour is more important in sustainable development than technology. Lyklema was a favourite with the audience and made a big impression with a short lecture appealing for a more sustainable lifestyle with a smaller ecological footprint. His proposal did not get more concrete than that, but it still won a large number of votes.
[6. From Tanzania/ Kenya]
Support entrepreneurs in Africa
Better entrepreneurship in Africa was the solution proposed by ex-Heineken executive Piet Heemskerk, seed producer Jan Omvlee and African businesswoman Helen Ulangat. The African Agribusiness Academy (AAA), established with this goal, tracks down entrepreneurs in Africa and puts them in touch with Dutch entrepreneurs who can coach and advise them. Ulungat: ‘We ask KLV members to use all their knowledge and experience to support African small and medium entrepreneurs.' This proposal received strong audience support.
[7. From the Netherlands]
Eco-agro hubs will provide African megacities with food
On behalf of the World Connectors, a network of influential people in development cooperation, the former Dutch labour party MP Harm Evert tabled the plan to establish ‘eco-hubs' near large African cities. These would be multi-functional centres for trade and knowledge exchange where farmers could be linked up with consumers. They would be organized by governments, the business sector and NGOs together. Waalkens was rather vague, so most of the tweets and text messages projected onto the screen behind him took the form of questions. Even so, his proposal was approved by the world government.
[8. From Brazil]
Brazil can feed the world
Wageningen alumni - including entrepreneurs and scientists - who gathered in Brazil in March concluded that Brazil has the potential to feed the world but that this would necessitate some changes to the world trade system. Paco van der Louw argued on behalf of the Brazilians for a new world food authority in which the big powers gradually get rid of import restrictions on Brazilian products. With the additional income, Brazil could tackle its lack of adequate infrastructure and good governance. As part of the deal, Brazil would increase its efforts to establish sustainable production and preserve the Amazon rainforest.
[9. From Ethiopia]
Ethiopia asks for support from the Netherlands and Wageningen
Farmers in Ethiopia could quadruple their harvest if they had access to good seeds, fertilizer and better varieties, and if they irrigated better. To achieve all this, Ethiopian universities are collaborating with Wageningen UR to run programmes for training, knowledge transfer and institutional capacity building. These programmes merit more support from the Dutch government and could provide an example for other African countries, concluded the conference for Wageningen alumni held in Addis Ababa in January. Eyasu Elias from Ethiopia also proposed setting up an association of Wageningen alumni in Ethiopia.

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