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Food, technologies and politics in Berlin

David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | December 16, 2017

I visited Berlin to participate in the Global Food Summit, an event sponsored by our International and Executive Programs (IEP) at UC Berkeley and Wageninen University among others. This is the second time we held this event, and it has improved in many ways.

We hosted the event at the top floor of the Radisson Blu Hotel where we had a wonderful view of the city and of the hotel’s huge indoor aquarium. Even the weather was friendly, and I was able to explore the museums, embassies, cafes, and chocolate stores, and I was happy to see that Steph Curry is big in Germany too. When I arrived, I lost the crown of one of my teeth. Fortunately, the event’s organizer found a dentist (who specialized in 3D printing of dental work), and was able to glue the “low-tech” original back in place.

The purpose of the workshop was to provide multiple perspectives on some of the current challenges facing agriculture, and technological and policy approaches to address them. The informal conversations about life and politics at such workshops are as enriching as the formal lectures. Furthermore, these workshops expose me to new ideas and perspectives, and I would like to share some of them here.

At the opening sessions, Dr. Kostas Stamoulis, an ARE alumnus who is now at the FAO, gave a great overview of the global food situation. While food security has improved immensely, there are still 800 million people who are hungry, mostly in rural areas. We are challenged to eliminate hunger and to be able to meet the growing demand for food in a sustainable manner. Stamoulis also suggested that using the vision of an idealized “small, sustainable subsistence farm” as a guiding principle is not feasible. Subsistence farmers want to be integrated in the global economy and we need to think in terms of food systems and integrated, resilient supply chains.

Dr. Mahmoud El Solh, the former director general of ICARDA, gave an excellent talk based on his rich experience in managing the largest international agricultural research program on arid farming in the Middle East. Plant scientists at ICARDA have been able to develop grain and pulse crop varieties that improve yields in dry regions. In Syria, for example, wheat yields increased from 2.1 million tons to 5.0 million between 1991 and 2006, but consecutive droughts and war reduced production to 1.5 million tons. El Solh suggested that the use of knowledge in crop breeding based on international cooperation, adoption of conservation practices and, most importantly, conservation of crop genetic biodiversity, can help to meet food challenges.

Dr. Binta Iliyasu, a leading scholar on the dreaded “sleeping sickness” in Nigeria and an outstanding Beahrs ELP alumnus, suggested that another key for progress in developing countries is promoting education, gender equality and role modeling by successful women in the sciences. These presenters emphasized that wars, political conflict, climate change and gender discrimination are the main contributors to food crises. Thus, political willingness to address these issues is essential for attaining food security and sustainable development.

For the evening, we went to the German Parliament, where we had a beautiful reception and dinner with government officials. I didn’t bring my U.S. passport to the embassy, and worried that I wouldn’t be allowed in. I offered instead my California driver’s license and the officer said, “We respect the California license more than the U.S. passport.” I learned quite a lot from conversations with German colleagues. They see many similarities between the U.S. and Germany. Both countries are federations of states, which are different in capacity and culture. Both countries are challenged to overcome the legacy of major calamities in their past. The notion of “never again” that I am used to seeing among my Israeli friends was very apparent among some of the Germans I met. An interesting theme was that when different states and segments of Germany were able to compromise and reach a solution, the country was able to prosper. But internal conflict and lack of cohesion have led to radical solutions that are now observed in many countries. For them, the model of US leadership was essential after the world wars and they worry that it is falling victim to internal conflict and a false desire for quick solutions that will lead to disappointing outcomes. The German parliamentarians we met are encouraged that with the disengagement of Washington from shared global concerns, California and other states are coming together to establish collaborative initiatives to address global problems.

The second day of the conference emphasized new technologies and institutional arrangements that can help with tackling some of the emerging challenges of our times. Dr. Sam Sternberg illustrated how discoveries about the genomic processes that allow bacteria to protect against viruses by re-editing its genome has been applied by Doudna and colleagues to develop more general techniques that allow modifying genomes. These techniques can be used to eliminate damaging traits (e.g. vulnerability to disease) and insert beneficial ones (e.g. faster plant growth). Dr. Michael Metzlaff, VP of Science Relations at Bayer AG, emphasized that recent breakthroughs in molecular biology and data sciences are accelerating production of food and agricultural products, providing new medical solutions, and renewable sources of essential chemicals. New technologies can increase yield and thus reduce the footprint of agriculture, reduce pest damage, sequester carbon, and enhance the sustainability of agriculture and adaptation to climate change throughout the world. The policy challenge is to develop sound regulation, accessibility and transparency that will allow these technologies to reach their potential.

The new innovations that have revolutionized agriculture go beyond genetics and computers. Osram’s innovation manager, Timo Bongartz, emphasized the potential role of vertical farming (farming in structures with multiple stories) in provision of fresh vegetables and other crops to consumers. Vertical farming overcomes space constraints and transportation costs, and can ensure freshness. Plant production in vertical farms would also benefit from using different light colors to affect the growth and traits of produce (e.g. taste, appearance). Michael Binder, the director of sustainability for Evonik, emphasized that circular farming is a key element in sustainable agrifood systems. In circular farming, residue materials of one process become inputs in another process. Evonik is developing technologies to make these processes technically feasible and economically viable.

Fabian Riedel founding director of Crusta Nova emphasized how selective breeding and clever engineering allowed his company to grow jumbo shrimp and other seafood in small-scale facilities in Germany. This local production mitigates the cost of shipping and storage, enhances freshness, and provides traceability for seafood. Max Kultscher, from the Bug Foundation, reported on the foundation’s progress in developing bug farms to provide alternative, sustainable food. Bugs have been a source of protein in many parts of the world. They produce protein and other nutrients with minimal input. The challenges are to develop tasty and nutritious food products for humans and animals and appropriate food safety regulations. The presentation of Jingang Shi, the head of EPC Natural Products in China, showed his strong passion for using traditional herbs as natural additives in healthy foods. His work illustrates that traditional and wild vegetables and mushrooms can help diversify the evolving agrifood system.

Technology cannot be introduced without supporting institutional arrangements. This point was emphasized by Thorsten Koenig, head of innovation for EIT Foods, an EU-supported organization which aims to develop policies, partnerships, and incentives that lead to a more dynamic entrepreneurial food system. Much of the research and innovations for this are conducted in large companies. EIT Foods wants to develop a system that incorporates some of the elements of the educational-industrial complex of the US, where innovations from university research are developed and then applied through the establishment of start-ups and new units in existing companies. Agrifood innovations have been reaching consumers by way of new institutional innovations in food delivery. In developed countries, consumers can purchase products from farmers’ markets, food delivery systems (e.g. Amazon Now, Blue Apron), and specialized markets. Professor Matin Qaim has assessed the health effects of the supermarket revolution in developing countries. While supermarkets increase the food choices available to consumers, they also contribute to obesity in some cases. At the same time, they improve the nutritional intake of consumers and provide new sources of jobs and incomes, in both rural and urban sectors.

The conferences I attended in Berlin and in Lima are part of our efforts to learn more and educate professionals, policymakers and the public on the transition in the agrifood system and the interactions between innovations and supply chains. We are hosting a workshop focused on agrifood supply chains and innovation on April 18-19, 2018 at UC Berkeley. We hope that some of you will be able to join us. It will be educational and fun!

Comments to “Food, technologies and politics in Berlin

  1. Great experienced David. Innovations are visible in the food production system supported by sound enabling environments. Keep us updated and informed. Thanks!

  2. Very informative synopsis of the discussions at the global summit. Good for us in the developing world. I like it, Zilberman. Keep on informing/educating us!

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