By Alec Rosenberg
Several themes emerged from the UC Global Food Systems Forum: Take a bottom-up approach. Focus on solutions. Pursue low-hanging fruit. Decrease food waste. Be practical. Be innovative. Involve education. But opinions differed on how to balance small- and large-scale farming, the role of genetically modified organisms, and what should be the most important area of focus.
More than 475 people attended the food forum in Ontario, Calif., which also reached a worldwide virtual audience. A live webcast received 1,500 unique viewers from 34 countries, while a steady stream of tweets at #Food2025 made the conversation a trending topic on Twitter. With more than 1 billion people going hungry every day and 1 billion people overweight, the conversation was timely.
"We must act now to improve the food and nutrition supply of people in poor countries and communities throughout the world," said keynote speaker Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and president of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice.
The daylong forum, part of ANR's statewide conference, addressed the challenges faced by food producers, suppliers and consumers in a world of growing population, strains on natural systems, climate change, shifting geopolitics and other converging forces. The event convened some of the world's leading experts — farmers, researchers, policymakers, economists, environmentalists and others — with the New Yorker's Michael Specter moderating a global panel and author and journalist Mark Arax moderating a California panel. The speakers offered thoughtful insights and solutions.
"This is fundamental to our mission as a land-grant university," said UC ANR Vice President Barbara Allen-Diaz. "Our goal is to take these brilliant ideas and turn them into brilliant plans of action."
By capturing water from rainfall and reducing evaporation, farmers could boost yields, said panelist Garrison Sposito, a UC Berkeley professor of ecosystem sciences and environmental engineering. Panelist Komal Ahmad, a 2012 UC Berkeley graduate, launched Feeding Forward, a startup that uses technology to streamline food donation, decreasing hunger while reducing waste. Panelist Howard-Yana Shapiro, who called for "uncommon collaborations," has increased the sustainability of cocoa at candy maker Mars Inc., where he is chief agricultural officer along with being a senior fellow at UC Davis.
What's the best way to feed the planet? Keynote speaker Wes Jackson, founder and president of the Land Institute, called for a focus on natural systems. Organic farmer Paul Muller, co-owner of Full Belly Farm, advocated for a Jeffersonian perspective of stewardship and self-reliance.
Meanwhile, Stuart Woolf, president and CEO of Woolf Farming and Processing, whose crops include almonds, pistachios and grapes, focuses on a larger scale. He noted that his farm supplies multinational corporations.
"We all serve different markets," Woolf said. "I think there's an opportunity for all of us to do well."
Issues of quantity and access
Increasing food productivity isn't enough, some speakers said.
"If you can't afford food, it doesn't really matter how much there is," said panelist Ron Herring, a Cornell University professor of government.
"We are trying to look for the silver bullet solutions instead of focusing on poverty," said panelist Anuradha Mittal, founder and executive director of the Oakland Institute.
A place to start is listening to the poorest people, speakers said.
"We need a Food Corps that's the equivalent of the Peace Corps," said panelist Sol Katz, a University of Pennsylvania professor of physical anthropology and an expert in health economics.
Panelist Maarten Chrispeels, a UC San Diego distinguished professor emeritus of biology, encouraged people to spend a month in a small village and learn about life there. Panelist Rebecca Peters, a UC Berkeley student, already has gotten a head start, spending three months in Bolivia as part of the Blum Center for Developing Economies. "We need to think about the perspective of the people we're trying to serve," Peters said.
Several speakers said universities and can play a key role in educating the public and conducting research. Farmers and other panelists pointed to the contributions UC has made to advance farm productivity and sustainability. Panelist Jonathan Shrier, acting special representative for global food security with the U.S. State Department, mentioned examples that included UC research to develop flood-tolerant rice.
"This type of conference is important because it gets everybody thinking out of the box," said panelist Grant Chaffin, a Blythe farmer.