Earth Day forum: Barrett maps food systems past mid-century

To feed the world in a healthy, sustainable way into the next century, nations must begin to reorient today’s agri-food systems toward distant generations, said Cornell economist Chris Barrett, speaking April 21 at the virtual Earth Day Global Forum, hosted by the New York City Diplomatic Community.

“We’re looking expressly beyond the Sustainable Development Goal horizon of 2030,” said Barrett, the Stephen B. and Janice G. Ashley Professor of Applied Economics and Management in Cornell’s Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. “What’s happening in the coming several generations will be be driven by innovations that are beginning today, not just by the [agricultural] innovations already reaching our dinner plate.”

The Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s succeeded in substantially reducing global hunger through boosting calories, Barrett said. Now, the global goals for agricultural food systems should emphasize broader nutrition, equity, resilience and sustainability objectives.

“We must focus not on energy intake or calories, but on healthy diets that are not obesogenic,” Barrett said, noting that diets should provide minerals and vitamins for healthy physical development.

Christopher B. Barrett, the Stephen B. and Janice G. Ashley Professor of Applied Economics and Management.

On the Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture panel, organized by the Australian Consulate-General in New York City, Barrett said innovations should keep in mind climate change, population growth and boosting income around the world. “Climate change is a reality baked into the system right now,” he said. “We can strive to mitigate climate change, but we cannot avoid it.”

Joining Barrett on the panel was Pasi Vainikka, co-founder and CEO of Solar Foods, a startup company that is making edible protein from atmospheric carbon and hydrogen; and Mario Herrero, now the chief research scientist of agriculture and food at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, whose research aims to increase the sustainability of food systems to benefit humans and ecosystems.

Cornell impacting New York State

Herrero will be joining the Cornell faculty on July 15 as a professor of sustainable food systems and global change in the Department of Global Development, and a scholar at the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability. Also, he will become the Nancy and Peter Meinig Family Investigator in the Life Sciences.

Andrew Campbell, CEO of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, moderated the group.

Two years ago, Barrett addressed the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations at its headquarters in Rome, saying that “food security may be the defining global challenge of the century.”

Mario Herrero, chief agricultural research scientist at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. Herrero will be joining the Cornell faculty on July 15.

Now, at this panel, Barrett – a faculty fellow at Cornell Atkinson – referred to the global expert panel of scientists and business experts he led last year, that created a road map for global agri-food systems innovation, reform and sustainability, which was published last December on Nature websites.

Essential actions, he said, include socio-technical innovation bundles to accompany global policies and cultural shifts. “We need chefs who will come up with clever new recipes to use [new food developments] … because without the implementation downstream, the upstream innovation just will never scale,” Barrett said. “So those synergies are needed. We saw this in the Green Revolution, that you needed extension agents and rural roads… in order to realize all the gains.”

With a burgeoning world population, Barrett noted the need to reduce food production’s land and water footprint – or “deagrarianize” food systems, which means to decouple food production from land.

Instead, the land instead could be used to capture wind, solar and geothermal energy, as well as sequestering carbon and conserving biodiversity, he said.

“Just as a century ago it was unimaginable that we wouldn’t need tons of farmers producing our food – that machines would somehow do it and horses would be unnecessary,” Barrett said. “Today, we’re able to imagine something quite similar, where we don't need all that farmland for food production. We can deagrarianize food systems and we must do so at an accelerating pace.”

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