The topic for the Asheville Museum of Science’s first Science Pub of the year was “The World Food Challenge.”

The presentation was given at The Collider by UNCA professor Elizabeth Porter, an economist at UNCA specializing in teaching international development, humanitarian assistance, and environmental and natural resource economics.

Porter said the world food crisis is a little overwhelming to say the least.

“I’ve been doing this for about 20 years. The problems are systemic, and the system is very complex. Both the problems and their solutions are complicated. There are a lot of challenges, but there are a lot of opportunities when it comes to food and ecosystems, and humans when you boil it down.”

Fair trade was Porter’s introduction to what would become her mission. She began with working with Oxfam International, and then to handicrafts, co-ops, and artisans.

“I started working with amazing groups of women around the world on income generation and poverty reduction projects, and they made a really big difference.”

She branched out from there, and learned about the important economic role agriculture plays in communities.

Through all the opportunities that opened up to Porter, she says the most important one was the opportunity to work with farmers. Her love grew for the importance of agriculture in its role with people, poverty, income, and employment.

“That’s how it started, but I ended up about a three day’s walk from the nearest road in the Amazon rainforest. The thing is, you don’t go into the rainforest without coming out as an environmentalist.”

Porter said her experiences got her involved with disaster response.

“Very, very large scale disaster response. I worked with the United Nations, with the World Food Program, and we worked with populations of up to two and a half million people at a time who were failing, and that is very complex. The very dynamic reality of food systems and people, and income, and poverty, and agriculture in the environment, and the rainforest, and markets and capitalism – holy cow! You put those all into the blender and it gets complicated.”

Approaching these as an economist, Porter insists that there is more than enough food in the world at this time.

“There are some incredible researchers out there who have figured out that all of the famines we’ve had since World War II happened in countries with food surpluses.

“Famines are not a lack of food or calories. Famines often happen in situations where the markets are full, and the streets are lined. It’s manmade; political issues and power.”

She said we now have 800,000,000 people who are chronically hungry, and by 2050 we will have 50 percent more people on this planet.

“Given current projections we’re not going to have enough calories. We’re not just talking about more production, we’re talking about fixing the systems also, and that’s going to be difficult. We’ve got a problem coming up.”

The current demand supplies 7.7 billion people, but by 2050 studies anticipate the population to reach 9.6 to 10 billion. The planet’s human population was pretty stable until the 1920s.

“Total fertility rates worldwide are lower than they’ve ever been in history and they’re falling dramatically. The increase in our population is due principally to declining mortality rates. Birth rates in the United States are actually lower than our current mortality rates. If it were not for immigration our population would be shrinking.”

As important as the population is, standards of living matter too such as the ability to access education, and healthcare.

“If I have the right to live the quality of life I have in Asheville with my heat, my air conditioning, my refrigerator, my washing machine, my hot shower, and all the luxuries, then I feel all 7.7 billion people have that same right. Higher incomes is what gets people to the point where they can afford all these fantastic things,” Porter said.

Part of the complexity of the issue comes from being able to eat more food, but part of that demand is that they eat more meat. It’s a very strong correlation.

“When you look at demand and impact, waste then enters the equation. We have 42 percent of food loss to waste.”

It takes a lot of land to raise and feed cattle.

“The complicated part is that we’re taking land out of food production for humans and putting it into feed production for cattle and other animals. That’s where our supply challenge begins. We also have a climate problem with heat stress and water stress, and it’s getting wetter and hotter. Crop yields increase and plateau at 68 degrees, but decline at 95 degrees. Growth ceases at 104 degrees. 

“The particular crop that I’m in love with is chocolate. The reason I’m in love with cacao is because it comes from a tree in the rainforest. It wants to grow in the shade and be part of a vey complex ecosystem with lots of bugs, and birds, leaf litter and humidity.”

Porter recommends shifting to a healthier more sustainable diet, reducing food waste, learning more about agroecology, buying certified Fair Trade foods, supporting the local food economy, and of course, eating more chocolate.

“Chocolate comes from trees, and trees absorb greenhouse gasses,” Porter said.

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