Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Cullen Hendrix, Associate Professor at the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, who will be speaking at the summit.
Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to get involved in food and agriculture?
Cullen Hendrix (CH): I was born to ministers in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. While their parishioners tended to fields and fowl—Rockingham County is the “poultry capital” of Virginia—my parents tended to them. I knew a General Harvester from a John Deere before I could speak in sentences, and until my family moved to Michigan, the name Ford meant a big blue tractor. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on a neighbor’s lap as his tractor meandered beside his fields. My first job was in agriculture in California’s Central Valley. I’ve been fascinated by the relationship between society and the food systems it relies on since I can remember.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
CH: Recent food price shocks have reinvigorated concerns that we are entering a period of scarcity, marked by too many mouths chasing too few calories. Moreover, policymakers increasingly are being warned to look locally, rather than to global markets, for solutions to these problems. However, the primary barriers to feeding the future are not, in fact, resource-based but political and economic. Especially in light of forecast impacts of climate change, a more, not less, robust global food trading system will be necessary to meet the needs of a hungry world. Feeding the future will require “eating out,” or greater integration of food markets, rather than looking inward.
FT: What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about?
CH: I’m very excited about the increased attention food scientists and agronomists are paying to “orphan” crops, like millet and cowpeas, which can help form the backbone of more resilient, nutritious, and productive food systems in Africa. Also, I’m excited about the potential for small-scale aquaculture to be a great source of both income and nutrition for small-scale agriculturalists around Lake Victoria.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that inspired you?
CH: My food hero is a pretty common one: Norman Borlaug.
FT: What’s the biggest problem within the food system our parents and grandparents didn’t have to deal with?
CH: Our parents and grandparents did not have to deal with such widespread pessimism about our abilities to overcome shared challenges. I think there’s a massive gulf between what is possible—from a scientific, economic, and social perspective—and what is believed to be possible. This stems from a failure of both imagination and leadership.
FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?
CH: We need to solve the issue of export bans. Export bans are a common tool by which food-exporting country governments have sought to shield local consumers from high prices in global markets. These policies push prices even higher in times of crisis and deter investment in the agricultural sector in export banning countries, where farmers do not get accurate market signals. Article XI of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) allows for temporary export restrictions in order to “prevent or relieve critical shortages of foodstuffs or other products essential to the exporting contracting party,” and generally require World Trade Organization (WTO) members to consult with and assess the potential effects on food-importing members, though this restriction only applies to developing countries that are net exporters of the commodity being restricted. This policy is toothless, as the disciplines are extremely vague. The United States and its partners integrated better-reporting mechanisms into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which should help importing countries react to market changes. Though it falls short of the first best option of doing away with export bans entirely, it is a useful step in the right direction and should become a standard component of future agreements.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
CH: Food waste.
FT: What’s one issue within the food system you’d like to see completely solved for the next generation?
CH: I would like to see a large-scale, public reinvestment in developing next-generation agricultural technology. The U.S. led this fight in the 1940s and 50s; it can do so again.
FT: What agricultural issue would you like for the next president of the United States to immediately address?
CH: As long as I’m dreaming, I’d do something about the U.S. sugar subsidies and market supports!
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