McGill talks food security

The village chief of Taiba, The Gambia with his field, village, and son in the background.

Since my bio is up on the site, I’ll skip the introductions and just launch straight into my first post!

Last week I was sponsored by my department (plant science) to attend McGill’s 4th annual Global Food Security Conference. The event took place over a two-day period, with panels on natural resources, trade and international markets, Food price volatility, and several other intriguing topics which you can see here.

Speakers included diverse representatives such as Sarah Dalle of USC speaking on grassroots development and Minister Beverly Oda on international cooperation, and involved speakers and participants from Kenya, Nigeria, Guatemala, Haiti, South Africa, et cetera.

One commonality that there was no escaping was that in my field (agriculture), essentially all the speakers were older men. They were all good speakers with interesting and valuable things to say, but it does raise an important issue.

In Canada, as well as globally, farming is increasingly becoming the domain of older folks. There’s a worrying trend of low recruitment into agriculture, and many younger people seem to be simply disinterested in getting involved in the field.

During the conference’s question period a journalist put the problem in terms of needing to make agriculture ‘sexier,’ and to an extent I agree. Plants are certainly not the first thing that pops into most peoples’ minds when they think of ‘sexy’.

This is a big problem! Estimates of hungry people in the world today fluctuate from about 900 million to over one billion. Although this is already a lamentable disgrace, when we talk about food insecurity the numbers get really scary. What will happen if the monsoons fail inSouth Asia? What if (when) theSahelhas another prolonged drought? We have yet another gruesome example ongoing in the Horn of Africa right now. To add to the confusion, we’re increasingly relying on the land base to supply everything from fuel to biomaterials. Everybody cares about these issues, so why doesn’t that translate to increased research?

In 2003, African heads of state signed the Maputo declaration, a part of which was an agreement to allocate 10% of national budgetary resources to agriculture. This investment is miniscule considering the returns; in most of these countries agriculture accounts for the vast majority of the workforce and a large portion of the GDP. Only six countries of the 36 participants reached the modest goal.

I saw the same thing throughout my undergraduate degree, and while working for agricultureCanada. In the Soil Chemistry department I met a group of dedicated scientists toiling on what are probably the biggest issues on the planet: water use and soil quality. Soil health and water conservation dictate the productivity of every agricultural system on the earth, and yet are subject to criminally little attention. I didn’t have a single undergraduate peer who was interested in going into the field.

So if you’re working (or thinking of working) in these areas, have courage! The demand for your research will follow the general population upwards, and I strongly suspect there will be some serious re-evaluation of the sexiness level when there are 9 billion mouths to feed.

Back at the food security conference, I shared my table with a half-dozen students, some presenting posters of their research, and some even there on their own dollar out of personal interest. I figure that if we keep people like them going to conferences like that, things should probably be okay.

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