On 10-11 October 2019 the RIAS held the conference “Futures of Food” together with Food Delta Zeeland and the HZ University of Applied Sciences (Vlissingen).
“Futures of Food” was a unique multidisciplinary event for the RIAS. It brought together an international group of academic and professional experts to discuss a broad range of topical issues related to food production and consumption, such as climate change, biodiversity, land and energy use, sustainability, and aquaculture. Meeting over two days under the theme of “Global Problems, Local Solutions,” the conference situated the latest innovations in Zeeland within a wider context, linking the local with regional and global levels of activity, and situating current developments within historical trajectories.
Thursday, 10 October
Opening the proceedings was David Woolner, professor of history at Marist College, New York, and resident historian at the Roosevelt Institute, who introduced the conference’s theme through an oft-neglected figure of the Roosevelt era: Henry A. Wallace. An Iowa farmer who became FDR’s Secretary of Agriculture and then Vice-President (1940-1944), Wallace combined an interest in “scientific” farming with a passionate concern for the improvement of rural livelihoods. This concern was central in his vision of a “century for the common man.” Woolner explored Wallace’s role within the Roosevelt years, both as an agricultural innovator and as an internationalist. Following a visit to Mexico in 1940 – where he had been appalled by the state of Mexican agriculture – Wallace worked together with Henry Rockefeller to establish the Mexican Agricultural Program (MAP), a bilateral organization for the sharing of agricultural knowledge. MAP subsequently became a blueprint for like-minded institutions in South America, Africa and Asia, contributing to an expansion in global food production soon referred to as the Green Revolution. The legacies of this are mixed – food production was mechanized and made efficient around the world, but at great cost to the environment, and many local producers were pushed out by large-scale capital-intensive farming. Woolner’s talk therefore introduced some of the key dilemmas that would be discussed by other speakers over the following two days.
The second keynote, by Courtney Fullilove of Wesleyan University, explored the long-term development of agricultural technologies and local knowledge. Humans have been practicing agriculture for millennia, and it is within this “deep history,” Fullilove argued, that we may yet find alternatives to the unsustainability of large-scale monocultures. Drawing on her recent book The Profit of the Earth: The Global Seeds of American Agriculture, she drew attention to how, if you look back far enough, no crops are native due to the inevitable intermingling of species over time. Fullilove presented the results of her own fieldwork in the Caucasus and Central Asia, where she collected cereals and their wild relatives for international gene banks. She also demonstrated that the famous corn prairies of the US Mid-West came about through Eastern European migration and the importing of strains of Russian wheat. As a result, claiming something as ‘local’ is problematic – all food has gone through transnational pathways of evolution.
The first panel, “Society, Economics, and Futures of Food,” explored the economic and social dimensions of food production. Niek Koning of Wageningen University used Charles Mann’s book The Wizard and the Prophet to divide current approaches to food security in two camps: the “wizards,” who believe that global food security can be ensured by the application of science to fertilizer and crop varieties, and the “prophets,” who instead advocate a drastic decrease in consumption. Koning argued that both solutions would fail unless they are supplemented by corresponding innovations in clean energy and international cooperation to encourage agricultural development in the Global South. Frederike Praasterink of the HAS University of Applied Sciences, went on to explore the global food system as a function of agricultural productivity. The current model, which encourages farmers to produce the largest possible yield for the lowest prices, has generated adverse effects (health, environmental damage, dependence on imports, consumption patterns) that makes it unsustainable in the long term. More attention had to be given to innovation rather than intensification – it is no longer a question of why we should change, but how. Herman Lelieveldt (University College Roosevelt) shifted the focus to politics. Food has always been a core ingredient in political struggles – one need look no further than the Dutch farmer’s protests in The Hague that coincided with the conference. For Lelieveldt, current political issues surrounding food derive from deeper social shifts, as a decreasing part of the population is now directly involved with agriculture and food reproduction. This, he argued, leaves politicians increasingly disconnected from those affected by their policies. A greater appreciation for the particular role that food production plays in particular localities (such as through the EU’s origin-protection scheme) might form part of the solution. Lelieveldt’s response to both Koning and Praasterink was therefore that we need to re-engage with the local and learn to appreciate the status of the food on our plate.
The second panel, on “Biodiversity and New Food,” explored the place of agriculture within the natural environment. Koos Biesmeijer of Naturalis highlighted the importance of preserving and extending natural pollination methods – through bees and other insects – as a way of maintaining biodiversity. Such schemes can involve a range of partners, including major corporations, in re-shaping landscapes to draw the necessary positive response from nature. On the theme of new crops, Klaas Timmermans (NIOZ Yerseke) spoke on the possibilities of seaweed as a much-needed source of protein in a situation of ongoing global population growth. Yet despite recent improvements, modern aquaculture still lags some way behind land-based crops. “When it comes to seaweed,” Timmermans quipped, “we are still in the hunting and gathering age.” Nevertheless, Timmermans claimed that the ability to expand rapidly in this direction is already present. Pauline Kamermans of Wageningen University displayed the results of an EU-funded regional study of the projected effects of climate change on aquaculture yields. While necessarily speculative, the results show that it may be hard to develop large-scale, profitable aquaculture farms in Western Europe due to disruption from a rise in sea temperature and a more volatile oceanic environment. The presentation provided a necessary sober reflection
Performance artist Matthijs Bosman closed the day with a very entertaining and humorous presentation. The point of departure was Bosman’s mantra that “originality is valuable—a good story makes people want to join a new train of thought.” Bosman is known for using forms of public “theater” to draw attention to societal issues. For his “Nederland Superland” project he was asked by the Province of Noord-Brabant to encourage consumers to think critically about the food production chain. Having discovered that food distribution in the Netherlands was essentially controlled by only a handful of companies, Bosman set up his own “Superland: the largest non-existent supermarket in the Netherlands.” Superland has its own discount cards and website, as well as a CEO and public relations officer (Bosman himself)—just no physical location or actual food. Bosman took his concept on the road in 2019, touring through festivals, market squares, and council buildings to engage passers-by on what they know about their food and what they wanted from supermarkets. This triggered debate on plastic packaging, the need for more transparency on environmental costs, and the profit margins for farmers. Bosman revealed that while many support a more ethical food system, they are nevertheless tied to their belief in personal choice as the ultimate source of behavior.
Friday, 11 October
During its second day, the conference shifted its orientation from the global to the local, as successive speakers turned to consider a range of social, political, and technical solutions to the challenges outlined on Thursday. Keynote speaker Bastiaan Mohrmann, formerly head of the South Asia program at the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation and current director of the consultancy firm “Rural Futures,” introduced the session by outlining several of the key ways through which global developments affect the rural environments where the mainstay of the world’s food is produced. Rural communities face multiple challenges: population growth and a global rise of calorie consumption intensify market pressures on the agricultural sector, producing social and environmental strains that are further amplified by climate change, the decline of biodiversity through the use of pesticides, and deforestation. Keeping agriculture sustainable, while also allowing it to meet the demands of a larger, wealthier world population, will require widespread innovation on all fronts. Here, Mohrmann drew attention to promising new techniques in organic farming, such as recent innovations in the field of syntrophic agroforestry – “forest farms” integrated into the local ecosystem – in the Global South.
The need to integrate food production within local ecosystems remained a key theme for the next panel, on “Food, Energy, and Sustainability.” In his talk on “Aquaculture Paradoxes,” Jouke Heringa of the HZ University for Applied Sciences introduced the conference to aquatic farming – of fish, shellfish, and seaweed. Aquaculture is rapidly gaining importance, both as an alternative to wild catch as well as to land-based agriculture. But if its full potential is to be met, it will need to overcome certain key challenges, not least of which is its integration into the local food supply. These points were echoed by Marnix Poelman (Wageningen University) who similarly stressed the potential of aquaculture as an alternative source of protein, generating talk of a potential “blue revolution” to follow the “green.” Meanwhile, back on land, agriculture will have to contend with alternative demands on rural space. Jacob van Berkel (HZ University for Applied Sciences) argued that, when reconceived as a “crop,” renewable energy generation can provide both a more efficient use of land, and a financial boon to farmers. However, any large-scale shift to renewables would require a radical redrawing of urban and (in particular) rural landscapes to enable sufficient energy generation. All three papers were united in a common call for “smarter” food production systems that would respond to increasing demands on land use, efficiency, and health.
An intermezzo saw the “Food Curators” – designer duo Digna Kosse and Lucas Mullié – presented their ongoing project with the Province of Zeeland on the unique qualities of local products. By designing “culinary experiences” that draw on Zeeland’s history, they create spaces for locals and visitors alike to reconnect with the yet-untapped richness of Zeeland’s culinary culture.
The conference’s final panel session, on “Climate Change and Crop Salinization,” offered a multi-disciplinary examination of an issue affecting many of the world’s rural communities: the salinization of soils due to global warming. As Peter Bodegom (Leiden University) noted, salinization particularly affects drought-prone regions already most exposed to climate change, lending priority to the creation of new salt- and heat-resistant crop strains. This has been achieved with quite some success, generating optimism that salinization can be overcome. Yet, as Arjen de Vos of “The Salt Doctors” went on to argue, crops are only half the story. To help rural communities respond to salinization, development practitioners need to consider soil conditions, water management, as well as local conditions and customs. This view was shared by Joost Bogemans (Serra Maris) who drew on his extensive experience in the development of salt-resistant crops as a commercial enterprise. The most popular salt-resistant crop is Salicornia (zeekral), but much of this produce is still imported from as far away as Mexico and Iran. Also, the use of saline crops as a biomass energy source is still heavily under-exploited. As a result, there remains great underutilized potential in the farming of halophytes (the natural flora of saline environments) in the Netherlands and in Zeeland in particular.
The conference closed with its final keynote, “Coastal Foodscapes,” by local cultural entrepreneur Gerard van Keken. Van Keken, with extensive experience in the tourism sector, has been involved in a wide variety of projects based around the development and marketing of local food cultures, raising awareness not just among visitors but also Zeeland’s inhabitants as to the rich food history of their region, such as being a major wine-producing province.
Van Keken highlighted several themes that rounded off “Futures of Food” perfectly. Firstly, there is a distinct lack of coordination at the government level. While national leaders, having promoted maximized production for decades, are now slamming that into reverse to try and meet environmental targets, provincial government has been largely absent, providing no coordination or guidance. ‘Food’ is meant to be a priority theme, yet receives scant attention. Commercial operations are still based on maximizing returns, and lacking any form of support, initiatives for organic alternatives remain scattered and small-scale. Cultural awareness, linking food, quality, and historical identity, remains patchy and in danger of being used as little more than a marketing gimmick. Nevertheless, there are plenty of ongoing projects and engaged citizens who want to change this for the better.
The conference “Futures of Food” demonstrated the potential not only for future foodscapes to be productive, efficient, and ethically sound, but also for the RIAS to play a useful role within Campus Zeeland as a meeting-place for ideas and expertise from both sides of the Atlantic on key current-day issues.
Thanks must also go to the conference partners, Food Delta Zeeland and the HZ University of Applied Sciences, for making the event such a success.