Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Ari Novy, the Executive Director of the U.S. Botanic Garden, who will be speaking at the summit.
Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to get involved in food and agriculture?
Ari Novy (AN): I’m a plant evolutionary ecologist by training, concerned with plant conservation. I love natural plant communities and plants in general. Agriculture is simultaneously one of the coolest things we do with plants (I love to eat good food) and the single greatest driver of plant biodiversity loss. You can’t be interested in protecting plant biodiversity without engaging in agriculture. Plus, I am profoundly interested in how human history has intertwined with agricultural history and innovation. I also grew up in a farming community but was not from a farming family.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
AN: The fact that we are finally talking about the food system. However, the biggest challenge is that 80 percent of Americans live in cities and rarely come into contact with production agriculture. So we have interest, but a pretty severe lack of familiarity. This is strikingly different from say, 150 years ago, when over 50 percent of Americans were actually farmers and depended on farming for income and food directly.
FT: What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about?
AN: Anything that allows for greater yields per acre combined with fewer harmful inputs and outputs.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that inspired you?
AN: I’m a huge Nicolay Vavilov fan. He was a pioneering Russian plant scientist who developed the theory of centers of crop domestication by being the first scientist to search for crop varieties and their wild relatives on every continent (except Antarctica). He was brilliant and probing about all aspects of agriculture and related botany. He was as interested in the cultures he found associated with the crops as he was with the plant varieties he collected. He recognized the importance (and impending loss) of crop diversity quickly. He was driven by a desire to solve world hunger issues, but he refused to compromise his scientific integrity, despite the fact that his scientific theories were profoundly unpopular in Soviet Russia for political reasons. He paid the ultimate price, dying in prison as an enemy of his own state, but he is still remembered as one of the greatest plant geneticists, explorers, and agronomists of all time.
FT: What drives you every day to fight for the bettering of our food system?
AN: I’m an educator at heart who loves plants. I’m driven to help people understand our food system and help arm them with the information they need to make informed decisions. Helping people become active citizens based on quality information is what moves me forward.
FT: What’s the biggest problem within the food system our parents and grandparents didn’t have to deal with?
AN: As I mention[ed], it’s simply the lack of familiarity. Demographic shifts caused mainly by our society transitioning from an agrarian to an industrial and service-based economy have led us to a moment where fewer than 2 percent of Americans are farmers and over 80 percent live in cities. Most of us simply don’t have any visceral connection to agriculture or any family that does. In our grandparents’ generation, people were still a lot more connected to farms. Much larger groups of Americans either lived in farm country or had relatives on farms. That created a familiarity with farming that we do not enjoy today, with so many clustered in cities and so few required to provide farm labor.
FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?
AN: I’d like to see us stabilize and then begin to decrease the number of acres in agricultural lands while continuing to increase production to meet worldwide demand.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
AN: I really don’t have a good answer for this question. The first thing people need to do is familiarize themselves with current agricultural practices and understand how we got to the current system. From there, people can begin to rationally discuss pros, cons, alternatives, and future solutions.
FT: What’s one issue within the food system you’d like to see completely solved for the next generation?
AN: No one in the entire world should be food insecure. Conservation and sustainability are empty concepts to those with empty stomachs.
FT: What agricultural issue would you like for the next president of the United States to immediately address?
AN: As a federal employee, it’s inappropriate for me to answer this question. Sorry.
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