To feed the planet, start with good stories


Host Frank Sesno, leaders in food innovation, and students from various universities, kick off the Feeding the Planet Summit,  hosted from April 23-24 at George Washington University. By Beza Bisrat

At NU, we don’t have to worry about growing our food ourselves - we can grab a hot meal from the dining hall and be on our way. However, this isn’t the case for everybody in the world; many people in and out of the U.S. lack access to food. And it turns out that when we look at the journey our food takes, from the ground to the dinner table, we start to see some discrepancies in the ways we produce and distribute food.

Last week, I got to attend the Feeding the Planet Summit in Washington D.C., an event held by George Washington University’s Planet Forward group, an organization dedicated to food security worldwide. The theme of this year’s summit was “The Story of Food in the Age of Climate Change”, and addressed the issues of food production and restricted natural resources in the face of a growing population.

Through the power of storytelling, people from all walks of life are brought together under the issue of food. There were a number of panels held by representatives from Congress, the United States Department of Agriculture and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, discussing the role of the government and food relief work across the globe.  Monsanto, Land O’Lakes and Bayer CropScience gave perspectives on influencing the market by implementing biotechnology as a solution. Farmers gave compelling testimonies about the challenges of organic and urban farming, and students presented projects on food innovation.

What Did I Learn?

As an engineering student, I’ve been trained to look at pre-existing problems and their parameters, and construct a solution that meets the need of my client, without having to examine the social norms that surround the problem. But one organization at the summit, the Andean Alliance for Sustainable Development (AASD) used the opposite approach when they designed a sustainable vegetable garden in the mountains of Peru.

Founded by Adam Stieglitz and Aaron Ebner, two graduates from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, AASD sought out to make ties with the local Peru community members to determine how what they wanted to improve nutrition. Their designs for a sustainable garden came out of the request to have more vegetables, which are much harder to grow at higher altitudes with rockier soil. AASD has provided the materials and information for villagers to sustain this garden project. This project demonstrates one of the most important things I got from this conference: the importance of getting to know the people and the community in order to better understand why current problems exist and gauge how willing a community is to implement changes.

An important part of helping people see the need for change comes from the stories we tell them. A fascinating point that was brought up during the conference was during a panel between a farmer in California and Jim Buizer, a professor of climate change at the University of Arizona. They discussed the impact from climate change on farmers, and a question was posed: how can you tell which changes in climate are temporary and which are permanent?

The problem is, we don’t know. But for people in California suffering from the effects of the drought, it makes things more difficult to plan for the future when dealing with a current crisis. Buizer urged us, when telling the story of climate change, to point to specific examples that apply to the audience you’re talking to, making it more compelling and relatable to them.

I really enjoyed getting to meet representatives from so many diverse organizations, and hearing about solutions that students in other universities are implementing today. I feel more inspired to make changes, and I feel more equipped to do so now that I’ve been exposed to so many resources. I think all people that are passionate about helping the world - whether your talents lie in science, policy, or storytelling - should utilize their skills and make them weapons in the war against hunger. And no matter what role you play in innovation, spread the story of the work you are doing, in order to help inform and inspire others.

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