Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Jason Clay, the Senior Vice President of Food & Markets and the Executive Director of the Markets Institute at WWF.
Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to get involved in food and agriculture?
Jason Clay (JC): I grew up on a very small farm in the United States. There were seven children. We lived on less than a dollar a day per capita, but we never really went hungry. Everyone chipped in as we grew or harvested from the wild most of our food. I helped with garden work from the age of two, first drove a tractor when I was three, fished and hunted for food from the age of seven. When I was 15, my father was killed in an accident on the farm and I had to help my mother manage it.
I went to college to get away from farming. I ended up becoming an anthropologist. Because I was steeped in farming, I began to work with farmers around the world—both as farmers, but also as famine victims and refugees for more than ten years of human rights work. I became tired of documenting the problems of these groups and decided to try to help them get ahead of their problems. I set up a trading company to help indigenous people and forest residents sell food into global markets. We created Rainforest Crunch with Ben & Jerry’s (and more than 200 other products) and doubled the price paid to all Brazil nut harvesters in the greater Amazon within four years.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
JC: I am not sure that I entirely agree with the question. It is not clear to me that the system is broken. But, what is clear is that the current system is insufficient for where we need to be by 2050. But, this is a much bigger sustainability issue than just food. Here is why. If seven billion people consume one unit of consumption each by 2010, and we are going to have nine billion people or more by 2050 and they are going to have an average of 2.9 times as much income per capita and consume twice as much, then we are going to have to reduce the impact of how we produce each unit of consumption (including food) by more than 60 percent just to be where we are today. And, WWF’s data suggests that we are already living at 1.5 planets right now. What this means is that what is more sustainable today will not be tomorrow, and will actually be a real problem if it persists to 2050. This is true of every single certification system.
So, for me the question isn’t as much whether the food system is broken or not, but rather what will the food system need to be like to get us to 2050, give everyone a healthy diet, and maintain a healthy planet? To accomplish this, we need to focus on increasing productivity and efficiency on the one hand, and reducing waste and shifting consumption on the other. But we have 6,000 cultures on the planet, and they do not agree about what they want to or should eat. They are all experts on this—they all eat. We need to make sure that people are aware of the implications of their choices for themselves, their children and for the planet. But since they ultimately make the decisions, we need to make sure that they also understand the tradeoffs involved in their choices.
On the planetary level, food production has the biggest impact of any human activity. And yet, by 2050 we have to produce more with less. In fact, with a business as usual system, e.g. wasting one of three calories, we will need to double global food production to have a 60 to 70 percent increase in net food availability. And, we need to stop the extensification of agriculture. Agricultural sprawl is the biggest single threat to the planet. In short, we need to intensify production, but we need to do it sustainably. But, bottom line—we have to produce more with less: less land, water, and other key inputs. This means every single system, e.g. conventional, no-till, organic, fair trade, certified, agroforestry, etc. Which can?
But we need to be very clear, from an environmental perspective, and the overall health of the planet and all the ecosystems and biodiversity, the price of food today is too low. But, that said, many cannot afford it. And, globally, most by far of the malnourished people and the stunted children are in rural areas and in farm families. Yet, the reason food production has such large environmental impacts is because the environmental impacts are not included in the price of food. If environmental impacts of food production (e.g. deforestation and habitat loss, biodiversity loss, soil erosion, water take and pollution, GHG emissions, etc.) are include[d] in prices, they will increase substantially, maybe even double in the short term.
FT: What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about?
JC: In conventional agriculture, one of the strategies that is the most hopeful, especially in the tropics, is no-till. It is an incredible tool.
Also, the rehabilitation of degraded and underperforming land using technologies that didn’t exist when the lands were degraded. Globally, we could bring 250 million hectares of underproductive and degraded land back into production that could be producing 10 percent of food globally by 2050.
Mapping the genomes of neglected food crops in Africa and the [Indian] subcontinent will help plant breeders increase productivity of the most important food crops in the countries where population and consumption will increase the most in the next 35 years. This will be completed the end of this year in Africa and started in the subcontinent in the near future.
Aquaculture is the future of seafood. Aquaculture is now responsible for half of globally consumed seafood. That will only increase. The Global Salmon Initiative has shown that the 17 largest and competing producer companies can profitably share information through open source data and precompetitive strategies to improve the performance of 70 percent of the sector. This is an example for every other sector.
Hopeful but unproven strategies: I am hopeful that cocoa rehabilitation will be an example of how to work with smallholders to replant poor performing and aging plantations. I am hopeful that global demand and long-term contracts can be used to leverage investments in more sustainable supplies of food.
I am much less hopeful that we will be able to respond as quickly as we need to regarding the impacts of weather variability and climate change on global food production. I am also much less hopeful that governments will take as serious and as soon as they should the issues of climate change and global food security.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that inspired you?
JC: I think it would be my mother. She taught me how to cook and how to use leftovers, how to grow food, how to can and preserve it, and how to be frugal and do all of this on a shoestring. Rarely a day goes by when I am not aware that without her forethought, planning, and ingenuity, I could very easily have been stunted as a child.
FT: What drives you every day to fight for the bettering of our food system?
JC: My children, and everyone else’s for that matter. Because of food, but also because I have spent a lot of my life in nature. It has made me who I am and how I think. I want others to have the same opportunity. If we don’t improve where and how we produce food, this will not be possible.
FT: What’s the biggest problem within the food system our parents and grandparents didn’t have to deal with?
JC: We have more people, living longer, with more money, consuming more, and consuming differently (e.g. more fresh and more animal protein).
FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?
JC: I think it is climate change. The short term solution (three to five years) to weather variability is simply to try to be more efficient and better at everything that we already do. The longer term strategy (6 to 10 years) is to shift crops or find better genetics that are better adapted to the new conditions. This means that we need to adapt global food production systems in short order, or we will produce less rather than more food. This is a challenge.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
JC: Don’t throw away food, eat leftovers, and be conscious of the impacts of your consumption.
FT: What’s one issue within the food system you’d like to see completely solved for the next generation?
JC: The elimination of food waste.
FT: What agricultural issue would you like for the next president of the United States to immediately address?
JC: Systems of traceability that eliminate the import of food that is produced illegally in the country of origin.
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