CHRIS BARRETT: So the report is intended to explore how we can navigate from the system we have presently, which is wildly successful on the terms under which it was created, to try to maximize the productivity of farming and fishing so as to meet the immediate caloric and protein needs of a growing population. But that system is also completely unsustainable. We will outstrip the capacity of the Earth to support the systems we have now if we just keep scaling them as populations and incomes grow. So how do we transition the system through productive innovation so that we can have a stable, sustainable system that takes good care of everybody? That's the core challenge that we tackle in this report.
All technologies generate both winners and losers. To take a very current example, we're seeing phenomenal advances in developing meat substitutes. Many people are familiar with Impossible Burgers or Beyond Meat or OmniPork or other products like that that are increasingly close to the sorts of livestock-sourced animal proteins we're used to. And the costs of production of these substitutes is falling very quickly, to the point that now, there's virtually no cost difference between many of the meat-like products made available without using livestock and the traditional meat products we're used to seeing in grocery stores and restaurants.
But those gains potentially come at a cost. Because as the cost of production of these substitutes falls, that increases the competitive pressure on feed-crop growers and livestock producers and the farmworkers who make their living in those industries and the rural communities that depend upon those industries. Rural towns that depend upon employment in a meat-packing plant are directly threatened by the rise of these meat substitutes.
So how do we navigate towards ensuring that we enjoy all the benefits of the innovations without imposing very painful costs on some sub-populations? We do that by bundling innovations, by advancing innovations that help the rural populations that could be imperiled by the rise of meat substitutes, innovations in renewable energy capture, innovations in capturing carbon in soils and being able to measure it and pay rural landowners for that resource, innovations that create good jobs in rural towns for things other than meatpacking or dairy processing so that as we bundle these innovations together, we can reduce the opposition to the emergence and scaling of important things that are arising from new technologies. And we can ensure that we don't leave anybody behind, that everybody gets to enjoy the fruits of innovation.
This year, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicts we will have a record global harvest of crops. But we will also see an increase in the number of people undernourished and the number of children who are severely, acutely malnourished. Why? Why this strange juxtaposition of record harvests with increasing numbers of people going hungry?
Because people are having a hard time keeping their jobs. Businesses are closing. Waiters and waitresses and school bus drivers and janitors at hotels are losing their jobs, or at least losing hours. And they struggle then to be able to feed their families adequately. Kids who depend upon the meals provided for free at schools aren't getting those meals when the schools close, and they don't have a way to go get free food as a substitute.
Having a good safety net is absolutely imperative to ensuring that all people have access to a healthy diet at all times. And those social protection measures are also important to build people's confidence that as innovations change the technologies under which we produce the foods we consume, they will have some fallback options.
So we need social protection to ensure in the moment of crisis that everybody's taken care of. But we also need social protection to ensure that there is broad-scale support to harness the fruits of technological change to help everybody.
Our panel very much hopes and believes that it is feasible for people to come together, to cooperate and innovate in ways that will deliver a healthy, equitable, resilient, and sustainable agrifood system. But that doesn't happen automatically. It's going to take leadership. It's going to take cooperation. It's going to take good information.
It's going to take holding each other to account, and it's going to take a generation that is scientifically literate but also willing to spend time understanding that it's ultimately the humans in the system that are both the cause of the problems and the source of the solution. So the science is critical, but the humans are paramount.
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Chris Barrett, an economics professor at Cornell’s Dyson School and in Global Development, led a one-year group effort to create a road map for global agricultural and food systems innovation, reform and sustainability. Barrett describes the report, funded by Cornell Atkinson, that was published Dec. 10 in Nature Sustainability.