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Posted at 04:40 PM ET, 06/13/2012

A Conversation with Jason Clay About the Future of Food

Washington Post Live is hosting a Future of Food forum June 14 with Jason Clay, a Senior Vice President of the World Wildlife Fund and a dozen other experts. To start the discussion about how the world is going to feed a growing population with limited land and water, read what Jason Clay said ahead of the forum.

Washington Post Live: It’s lunchtime on the east coast, and people are eating as we chat. What would you tell people to do so that they waste less food?

Jason Clay: Thank you for having me. To answer your question, there are a number of specific things that people can do. The most important is not to order more than you can eat. Always make sure that you leave the meal with the ability to eat more. Also, if you do order too much take it home and use it as a starter or base for another meal. Leftovers are great.if you change the way you think about your food, you can better understand the impacts it has on the environment. Did you know it takes more than 200 liters of water to make the average grande latte? Just one latte!

Learn how much water it takes to make a latte:

Once you change how you think, solutions to reduce your waste become clearer. You realize that when you throw food away, you’re also wasting all the resources that went into making that food—land, water, fertilizer and other inputs.

Think about ways you can do more with less.

It is important to keep in mind that on average globally we waste 1 of every 3 calories that are produced. if we could eliminate waste we would have to produce half as much new food to feed 9 B by 2050. Think about what you can do.

Washington Post Live: Jason, there are no seasons in the average American grocery store. Could you talk about this?

Jason Clay: We need to get back in touch with nature and the natural seasons. It can be fun to learn to cook with ingredients that are seasonal. That raises the issue that perhaps it is always better to buy locally. That is not always the case, though, we need to look at the data. for example, the GHG emissions of lamb produced and consumed in the UK are higher than lamb imported from New Zealand. Likewise it would be hard to produce bananas and other tropical crops in temperate areas. On a finite planet with a global food system, we also need to understand which places have a comparative advantage to produce food across a number of different variables, e.g. land, water, seasonality, etc. We have to be careful not to try to maximize and single variable.

From an environmental standpoint it can be a bit more complicated. Studies show that the biggest environmental impacts occur on farm, not in the transportation or refrigeration systems. Taking into account deforestation and habitat conversion, methane from animals, the use of high-energy inputs, volatilization from soils and production itself, agriculture makes up about 30% of global GHG emissions, 85% of which come from production on the farm.

It’s all about how efficient and responsible the farm is. Just because you bought your chicken from a local farm, that doesn’t mean it’s less impactful than a chicken from the local grocery store, which may have been shipped from thousands of miles away. It all depends on how that chicken was produced.

Washington Post Live: If there’s one statistic people should know about the impact of their own eating habits, what would it be?

Jason Clay:There are many, but I think the fact that it takes a liter of water to produce each calorie of food is pretty interesting. On a planet where we already use 70% of all the water taken by people to grow food, how are we going to double food production using less water by 2050? Remember that climate change is going to make water availability more precarious and variable, so the water issue may be the single most important one. However, going forward we will have to optimize our solutions rather than maximizing any single one.

Washington Post Live: Food waste and food security are closely tied. Obviously there’s no silver bullet to ensure food security for all, but what do you think a game changer would be?

Jason Clay: Food security needs to be distinguished from food self sufficiency. Very few countries are self sufficient in food. All developed countries import more by value than they produce, including the US, but this is by value not by tons or calories so it is a bit deceptive. Still global trade is going to be key to producing and distributing more food for more people while maintaining the planet. Ten years ago about 6% of food globally crossed international borders. Today it is 12. clearly some crops are more traded than others. what this means to me is that cdomparative advantage is real. it is easier to produce surplus in some places than in others and do less harm to the enfironment. in this context, we need to put an economic value on nature. The environment is not full of free goods. Companies and governments should be required to report and reflect the environmental cost of their activities in national accounts and corporate balance sheets. This will help create a global marketplace that accurately accounts for the environmental and social benefits of, and costs to, natural resources

On the consumption side, I have an idea for a handheld device that tells you whether or not your food is still good. This could help reduce waste dramatically. It could be the size of a device used by diabetics to test blood sugar, or about half the size of cell phone.

It would contain a strip that you’d touch on the food (whether it is a liquid or a solid), which is then inserted into the machine. The machine would process and then provide a read out. It would test for e-coli, salmonella, bacteria, choloform, and aflotoxin. The digital readout would tell you whether the food was still ok to eat.

Just one more thought about food security--I think the single most important thing to address food security is econonomic development and income generation. if you have money there always seems to be enough food to be distributed. But we also have to remember that half of the people who are malnourished are farmers and their families. in part that is because we might not be paying enough for food--and for the environmental externalities of producing it.

Washington Post Live: What do you think the biggest thing WWF is doing to promote food security?

Jason Clay: WWF has become much more strategic in our work. We have focussed on key places, key impacts and issues and key players that can help make the changes we all need. For example, WWF is working with some of the biggest global companies to convince them to produce sustainable products through our Markets Transformation Initiative. Through this program, we’re helping companies like McDonald’s, Cargill and Walmart better understand the environmental impacts along their supply chains and then how to reduce these impacts through improved efficiency, waste reduction and use of better management practices. We are working globally to identify and build consensus about the most important issues to address--we can’t work on a thousand issues, but we can work on 6-8. To date, however, most NGOs and certification programs have focussed on working with the best producers. that approach recognizes and rewards them and we may be able to move half of global production that way. But that will not actually produce much more food or reduce key impacts. if we really want to address those issues we need to work with the poorer performers--where the bottom 10 percent or so of producers can cause up to 50% of the impacts. More importantly, they have the most to gain from a productivity and efficiency perspective as well.

It’s all about managing Earth’s finite resources in a sustainable way. A global population that will grow to 9 billion people by 2050, each consuming twice as much, will put incredible strain on the planet we all depend on for food. If we can convince these market influencers to drive sustainability in the marketplace, helping to manage resources sustainably, we can achieve true global food security.

Click here to learn more about how WWF is working with companies to make smart choices for a finite planet.

Washington Post Live: One last question to wrap things up: what are some cool things happening in the food world that make you hopeful?

Jason Clay:  Let me mention two things. First, what is interesting in developed countries is that there is a lot of interest in food--there have always been cookbooks, but now there are cooking shows on food and they are some of the most watched programs on tv/cable. the fact that groups like WWF and National Geographic are focussing more and more on food is also hopeful. but, we also need to see improvement in the places where we are going to have more people, with more income, consuming more, e.g. Asia and Africa. there is hope here as well. Ten crops account for 70–80% of all calories consumed. Only one is on track to double production by 2050. Most estimates suggest that all ten need to double to meet future demand.

WWF has teamed with the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the food company Mars and the Beijing Genomics Institute to ensure the genomes of 25-30 “neglected” crops in Africa are sequenced and then put in the public domain.

We will train up to 90 Africans each year to use 21st century technology for plant breeding and hope that in 5-10 years time, scientists will use this information to double or even triple the productivity of these underutilized crops, improve drought tolerance, disease resistance and overall nutrient content.

Click here to learn more about these orphan crops.

To hear more from Jason Clay and learn about the future of food, tune into our forum tomorrow from 8:15 a.m. - 1:45 p.m. ET. Video highlights will be posted on washingtonpostlive.com.

By Washington Post Live Team  |  04:40 PM ET, 06/13/2012

 
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