Dr. Evan Fraser wears multiple hats at the University of Guelph, although “hats” doesn’t seem a big enough word. Fraser is Canada research chair in global food security, scientific director of the university’s acclaimed Food from Thought research initiative, and much more.
Fraser is also director of the Arrell Food Institute, whose mission statement conveys the scale of the issues he grapples with: “to transform global food systems and elevate Canada’s place within the global food economy.”
Fraser has been recognized both for his academic research as well as for his public outreach, including his 2010 book, Empires of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations. He has also developed a highly successful animated white-board video series explaining the global food crisis (see YouTube link further down), and he is a popular public speaker.
Recently Country Guide sat down with Fraser to explore his insights into whether humanity is destined to live on the edge of starvation.
Q. Is it realistic to even hope to feed the world’s growing population?
Fraser: It’s the great irony of the modern world that we produce so much food that two billion people are obese or overweight while 800 million remain undernourished. We produce far too much sugar and fat but we don’t produce enough fruits and vegetables for the world’s population. I’m not blaming anyone, especially farmers, but I am pointing out that there’s a disconnect between what we produce and what we know we should be eating to be healthy.
And there’s a huge equity and accessibility challenge. A lot of people aren’t food insecure because there isn’t enough food. They are food insecure because they can’t access it, or they’re too poor or too remote, or for other reasons. And we waste a third of the world’s food.
And there’s a major environmental sustainability challenge associated with producing food in a way that doesn’t undermine the environment.
Figuring out how to sustainably, equitably and nutritiously feed the world is one of the most important and pressing challenges of the 21st century. There are other major challenges, of course, but this is one of the key challenges for humanity for the next 100 years.
These are big challenges. Consumers, consumer groups, farmers, industry, government policy must all be brought to bear on the situation.
Q. Is the answer bigger and bigger farms, or smaller?
Fraser: Rather than talking about whether a big farm or small farm is the way to go, I think there are basic principles that we need to be thinking about and we need to apply those to farms of any scale. Let’s take an environmental perspective such as nutrient cycling. We don’t want to mine the nutrients in one area and overload in another. Crop diversity and crop rotation, practices that build up soil and reduce runoff, these are agro-ecological principles that farms should be using regardless of the scale.
I’ve been on very, very large farms that do well on these principles and small farms that do very, very well. And the reverse is true. I’m not as interested in the scale of a farm as I am in what kind of principles and practices underpin that farm.
Farmers need to make money, find markets, and do it in a way that maintains soil health and biodiversity, that doesn’t mine the soil or dump so many nutrients that we have water pollution.
And I think almost all types of farms that I can imagine have a role to play in doing that.
Q. Is it all doom and gloom, or are you optimistic?
Fraser: I see reasons for optimism. If there is a message to deliver to your readers it’s that we are not facing a Malthusian collapse globally. We live in a world where there is enough food (although not enough fruits and vegetables) and we waste a lot so there are all kinds of things we can do. We are also living on the cusp of some new technological innovations.
A little over a year ago the federal government released a report from the Advisory Council for Economic Growth…this was a committee of top-tier global economic experts commissioned by the Finance Minister to make recommendations on how to boost growth and create jobs. One of their top recommendations was to invest in ag and food due to the rise in global food demand.
Canada is well positioned to benefit from that rising demand. We have the infrastructure, an educated workforce, abundant fresh water, technology, etc.
They made a further recommendation to grow our food economy and exports by becoming the world’s trusted source of safe and sustainably produced food in the 21st century.
Trusted means we need to invest in technology that allows consumers and processors to look back along the supply chain and verify where our food’s coming from, what’s in it, how it’s produced. Here I think the processing industry and retail sector are leading the charge.
Safe… we need to be ever vigilant that we are maintaining the world’s highest safety standards. We have a great foundation to build on.
Sustainable. I think we need to recognize there is a market opportunity for us to really double down on issues around water use, energy, soil health, and animal welfare, and to aspire to be the best in the world on those criteria and use transparency tools to demonstrate it. There are a lot of economic benefits for us if we do this.
We’re living in a time of rapid transition… there will probably be winners and there will probably be losers, or people who struggle to adapt. It’s exciting but a little worrisome or stressful at the same time, especially for communities who have an established way of doing things.
Q. How do we reduce the amount of food waste?
Fraser: One-third of the world’s food is wasted, but how and why varies greatly from place to place. In Canada, the U.S. and Europe — that is, the rich part of the world, or the “developed world” — most waste happens at a consumer and retail level.
In Africa, South Asia, the developing or Global South, it’s largely farm-level waste due to inefficient storage and drying. In some regards the second problem is easier to solve. These are straightforward engineering problems… better drying facilities, better transportation infrastructure… so it’s easier to get product to market without spoilage.
The issue of food waste in Canada and the rich parts of the world is linked to the fact that most of us don’t spend very much on our food. We do our shopping once a week, and in large volumes, so we tend to waste a lot. I’m embarrassed to say my own family’s practices fall into that category. You buy kale at Loblaw’s on Saturday full of good intentions but then you realize it’s Friday and you forgot to cook it and it’s gone bad. I am as guilty of this as the next person.
That’s a much harder problem to solve. Education around using leftovers and best before dates and engineering-based solutions such as food packaging to extend shelf-life would help.
Q. You’ve developed some innovative educational tools. Which ones have been the most effective?
Fraser: About five years ago I put out a series of short animated videos about food security. These have been watched around 400,000 times and are used in classrooms around the world. So, it is these white board animated videos that have been the single most effective tool I’ve used. I’m working on another series that I hope will be available later this year.
I just developed a card game for grade 12 students that fits with the high school curriculum. It basically tries to introduce students in a fun, engaging, interactive way to basic concepts of agriculture and food security.
I’m also pretty proud of the graphic novel I wrote. It’s all about the power of storytelling.
Q. You helped out on your grandfather’s farm when you were young. Has that influenced your thinking?
Fraser: My grandfather on my father’s side had a farm in the Niagara Peninsula… I spent a lot of summers there, running the strawberry patch, hoeing melons, dragging irrigation pipes around. That early exposure to production and farming was definitely pivotal. My grandfather on my maternal side was an Anglican bishop. My mom has always been extraordinarily community-minded and her form of hospitality is almost always done around food. Farming on one side and food on the other. These are my personal roots.
A food security initiative based out of the University of Guelph to provide insight, outreach, and education around issues of food, agriculture and hunger globally.
A graphic novel about food security weaves together gripping story-lines about land grabs, rising food prices, inequality, climate change and more. #foodcrisis isn’t just a work of fiction though. All the elements of the plot are based on the history of past food crises, like the Dust Bowl or the Great Irish Potato Famine, just imagined in our future. Along with its 13 background essays and almost 200 footnotes, #foodcrisis comes with a six-week unit plan based on the Ontario curriculum.
Feeding 9 Billion: The Card Game is aimed at 14- to 18-year-olds as a classroom tool that introduces students to key concepts pertaining to global food security such as climate change, population growth, global trade, and agro-ecology. The game is linked through a series of grade 10-12 lesson plans with the graphic novel #foodcrisis.
Feeding 9 Billion: Introducing Solutions to the Global Food Crisis (YouTube)
Animated White Board Video Series explaining global food security issues. Fraser is planning another series which should be available in autumn 2018.