Maartje Oostdijk & Marie Schellens

On the 13th and 14th of June 2016, the EAT forum was hosted in Stockholm. Here experts from a wide range of nationalities and fields of interest addressed the interwoven and global issues of food, health and sustainability (have a look at eatforum.org). We joined a multi-stakeholder discussion session on ´Overcoming Barriers to Sustainable Food Production´ as rapporteurs.

´Scaling up´ was often mentioned throughout the round table discussion as a necessity to feed a population of 10 billion by 2050. Unconsciously, the title of the discussion session changed to ‘Sustainably Scaling up Food Production’. According to the participants, scaling up could be done by either intensification or expansion of production in agrobusinesses, as well as by aggregating and uniting small-holder farmers.

However, topics that in our view should have been high on the agenda, like sustainable use of fertilizers, food distribution, food waste, soil degradation and biodiversity in food production systems were only lightly touched upon. These issues should have been at the core when discussing the future of food production. Scaling up might not always make sense: especially if the practices are not sufficiently people and environmentally friendly, in the long run these practices will lead to even lower productivity in food systems.

As diverse as people are in the world, almost as diverse was our forum. We shared the squared table with a food activist, food industry representatives, government officials, successful entrepreneurs and investors, a broke entrepreneur, a journalist, a farmer, a cook and a few academics. This diversity, unfortunately, did not lead to any deep discussion on the controversial topics mentioned above. Our forum was a rather consensual meeting which was concluded with general pacifying phrases such as ´there are many pathways´ and ´there are more roads to Rome´. While talking about seemingly similar topics, the participants of our forum would most likely attach different meanings to the general term of sustainability. Probably because of the politics attached to the word, we never clearly defined or even debated the meaning of sustainability in food production. It was for example mentioned that ´organic farming does not need to be sustainable´; that ‘environmental and resilience questions surrounding GMOs are more about passion than science’ and that ‘growing palm oil in Indonesia on an industrial scale could be sustainable since it is one of the most productive crops’. Great, but we would then like to hear from the forum the question, in the light of sustainability, who in the end can live, who can EAT of this production, and for how long?

On a positive note, the level of expertise and diversity in the room was high and resulted in several interesting take home messages. Our highlight was a beautiful presentation about what mushroom cultivation can mean for the life of a young orphan girl in Zimbabwe, demonstrating the power an individual can gain from being able to provide her own livelihood. After harvest, the waste of the mushrooms can be used to grow vegetables, almost fully closing the nutrient cycle. Having learned how easy, cheap, fast and sustainable mushroom cultivation can be our presenter started a foundation called The Future of Hope to teach other orphans and women in rural and urban communities the skill of mushroom cultivation. Growing food in this sense addressed several domains of sustainability, the social trough empowerment, the economic trough livelihoods and the natural, trough nutrient recycling. An important lesson in this was the need for critical leaders and champions in sustainable agriculture. In addition, another important take home lesson from the discussion, was that policies should be planned across their institutional borders, not in silos. Sustainable agricultural production touches upon policies, obviously, regarding agriculture and land use but also upon health issues, international relations, economics and education. It was addressed that the sustainable development goals could be a tool for an integrative policy for sustainable agriculture.

With this we conclude that we admire the ability of the forum to bring together such a diverse group of experts in the field of agriculture. On the other hand, how can we imagine sustainable agricultural production without revealing our true thoughts. We understand the difficult trade-off between controversial heated discussion and making participants feel welcome and valued at the conference. However, finding common grounds and a way forward through controversial but open discussion would be even more rewarding.

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