A brand new University of Guelph thinktank had its three-day coming-out in May with an agenda that included speakers who question the direction of today’s conventional farm production, and the event culminated in the inaugural awarding of two $100,000 prizes — one going to a Harvard University professor who might seem no friend to Canada’s farmers.
But the director of the newly formed Arrell Food Institute, Dr. Evan Fraser, summed up the first-ever Arrell Food Summit — which saw two days of research presentations hosted at Guelph followed by one day of higher-profile guest appearances at the ritzy Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto — by telling Country Guide that “we did exactly what we needed to do for the first year.”
“When we set out to host this summit,” said Fraser, speaking for the Food Institute that was created in March 2017 through a $20-million donation from the Arrell family, “we wanted to have a fulsome, informed discussion about how we might sustainably, equitably, nutritiously feed the future human population of the earth. And I certainly think we accomplished that in a stronger way than I could have imagined.”
Indeed, Tony Arrell took the podium near the conclusion of the summit’s final day to declare his confidence the institute’s leadership is on the right track. That message of support came after an agenda filled with presentations calling on attendees to question whether mainstream agriculture has what it takes to feed a global population that isn’t expected to plateau until the year 2100.
Among the strongest voices of concern was Harvard University’s Dr. Samuel Myers, who made his presentation on Day 2 of the Summit in Guelph but stuck around long enough to collect his $100,000 cheque during Day 3’s evening gala as one of the two inaugural Global Food Innovation Award winners. Recent work by Myers indicates the nutritional quality of crops such as the rice that much of the world’s population depends for keeping them healthy is falling, largely due to the continued burning of fossil fuels.
(The other award winner was Solidaridad, the originator of the “Fair Trade” concept around the world.)
Likewise, top-billed Day 3 presenters Sir Charles Godfray of Oxford University and Dr. Sam Thevasagayam of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation offered sometimes alternative takes on food production, compared to the conventional wisdom.
But there was surprisingly good news too.
Fraser’s father David, is a B.C.-based academic and southern Ontario-raised farm boy who has been recognized by the Order of Canada for his work in farm animal welfare. When Godfray, then newly appointed as director of Oxford’s Martin Programme on the Future of Food, began looking into a concept that eventually became branded as “sustainable intensification,” he reached out to David Fraser to assist with some research into the role of livestock in agriculture.
Sustainable intensification, Godfray said in his presentation, aims to address the challenge of providing nutritious food for increasing populations in the developing world who, hopefully at least, will one day exist at a level of prosperity rivaling our own. He stressed that numerous intertwining factors need to be considered.
“We must bear down on food waste,” he commented, “but don’t let yourself think this is a magic bullet.” He continued that the true issue with relation to the use of the world’s ecological resources isn’t population growth per se, but rather over-consumption. And “we, in the rich world, consume far, far, more.”
In this context, he argued, bringing more land into agricultural production is not prudent. “Sustainable intensification is quite a loaded couple of words,” he said, regarding the concept of getting more abundant food, with equal-or-better nutritional value out of existing arable land. But “I quite like that twin challenge.”
The Fraser and Godfray families have remained in touch since Fraser’s father helped introduce the concept to the academic world, and when Fraser was putting together the first Arrell Food Summit, the guest who was top on his list was Godfray. Fraser called the Oxford scholar “the world leader in global food security. From an academic perspective, it just doesn’t get any better than this.”
The work of Thevasagayam, meanwhile, came onto Evan Fraser’s radar more recently. But according to his description of their initial interactions during a food security-themed summit in Washington, D.C. a couple of years ago, Fraser was no less struck by the perspective of the Sri Lankan-born and trained veterinarian who went on to study food and mouth disease in the U.K., and eventually joined the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as its point person on sustainable livestock agriculture.
Fraser recalls standing behind Thevasagayam in the hotel basement coffee shop lineup, and being asked his thoughts on a presentation they had both just heard. “I offered to him that animal agriculture is a crucial element of a sustainable agriculture system through the nutrients that can be put back into the soil, through the income it can provide, and through its value to the culture of the people involved in its production. But, I added, there are also many environmental problems that can arise due to animal agriculture that we must address.
“At that point, he smiled, and we went on to have a great conversation.”
In his food summit presentation, Thevasagayam confessed he’s not an agricultural economist. But he’d like to examine how agricultural transformation might help people rise above poverty and hunger — in keeping with the stated goal of the very wealthy American couple from whom his employer takes its name, and whose own names are now synonymous with sizeable charitable efforts around the world.
Much of the foundation’s agriculture-focused treasure has so far gone towards identification/development of new varieties, and Thevasagayam recalled learning that, in developed-world commercial agriculture, the average turnover of varieties to take advantage of these innovations is 2.5 years. Among smallholder farmers in the developing world, by contrast, it’s an average of 17. Thevasagayam says the foundation now understands that it’s a question of risk management.
The smallholders tend towards something they know will work, he suggests, because they know they could lose it all with one misstep. So the foundation has begun looking at innovations in financial services in the developing world — lending, crop insurance, etc. “It’s a slog, I would say, and not an easy process.”
Thevasagayam expressed gratitude at being able to work in an organization which he conceded is still young, and still learning from other more long-established aid agencies, but which is nonetheless certainly unique. “We’re using the private foundation capital to do the things that others wouldn’t do or couldn’t do, simply because we’re able to take that risk where other institutions are not.”
Reacting to Thevasagayam’s food summit presentation, Fraser commented how great it was to hear about the decision-making process at an organization that is essentially outside of the reach of political and corporate influences, but which commands far more financial heft than most countries or trans-national agribusinesses. “What a window into a part of the world that so few of us get to see.”
Fraser told Country Guide the Arrell Food Institute was conceived primarily as a tool to draw from the expertise across the range of study areas undertaken at the University of Guelph, towards a common goal of exploring global food security and its interaction with environmental sustainability. The aim of this summit was to “elevate and inform the debate” that feeds this exploration.
Both Sir Charles Godfray and the award-winning researcher Dr. Samuel Meyers “talked about how jealous they were about what the University of Guelph offers,” Fraser continued. There is such strength of expertise from farm to fork that the Arrell Food Institute can draw upon, very close at hand. This contrasts with the experiences of someone from Oxford or Harvard, who so often must reach outside their institution to find this same breadth of expertise.
Fraser isn’t sure if the Arrell Food Summit will become an annual event. He wants to “leave a bit of wiggle room” about frequency, with an aim to ensure future versions of the summit feature “more focused and bespoke discussions” about some of the concepts introduced during the inaugural event, and also so future summit organizers will be able to “respond to issues of the day.”
There are two key groups of what he sees as “stakeholders” in the Arrell Food Institute’s work: “people who are making decisions about the food system today, and people who will be making those decisions in the future.” This includes individuals from not-for-profit agencies working to make nutritious food more generally available to all; from the private food processing, food distribution and food retail industries; from producer organizations; and from institutions working to form government policy.
Approximately 20 per cent of participants across the three days of the food summit were students. These were almost exclusively from the University of Guelph. And, although Fraser expects that won’t change very much in future summits, he would like to see more participation by students from other universities.