The Next 50 Years: Dr. Fraser on IDEAS

The guest speakers sit on stage at the ideas @ 50 event

Dr. Evan Fraser was a special guest on the CBC IDEAS stage for the fiftieth anniversary event in October 2015.

This special event was, as described by IDEAS: “to address the prevailing sense that the human species may be facing “the end”. Environmental collapse. Global financial meltdown. Interethnic bloodshed. Not to mention the possibility of a sixth massive extinction. Will there be enough food? Will we all be crammed into dystopian megacities? How will we escape our long history of bloody conflict? Three panelists join host Paul Kennedy to argue – cautiously – how humanity may not only survive, but actually thrive.”

Watch the event here, or read the transcript of Evan’s opening address below:



Some experts believe that humanity now faces “a perfect storm of problems”.

Meaning: as the global population grows, we’ll have to produce 70% more food. And we must do this in the face of climate change, water scarcity, volatile energy prices andpolitical instability.

If we fail, the world will become hungrier, sicker and more violent.

To better understand this, let me tell you about a trip I made in 2013 to the East African nation of Rwanda. This tiny country is mostly remembered for the horrific genocide that occurred a little over 20 years ago.

The genocide itself, as you may recall, emerged out of the conflict between two rival ethnic groups: Hutu and Tutsi. These two groups themselves were an artifice of the colonial government that divided the people into two categories to administer them in the early 20th century.

But in the 1980s, a combination of environmental degradation, drought, poverty and economic change precipitated a wave of migration that brought these two groups together into one of history’s most deadly and tragic chapters.

Yet I wasn’t in Rwanda to talk about the genocide.

I was there to talk about food security.  And on my first day, I visited a World Bank rice intensification project where the Bank had worked with local farmers in fertile river valleys to establish higher yielding varieties of seeds, pesticide and fertilizer programs and irrigation systems.

The farmers, and the Bank officials, were delighted. Yields had doubled, tripled and in some cases probably quadrupled over a very short period. And as a result, Rwanda was producing more rice. This meant the country was using less of its foreign currency reserves importing food — and there was a degree of stability that helped the economy grow.

Then I climbed back into a dusty battered Land Rover, and drove up up up into the hills, skirting potholes that threatened to swallow our truck whole, until eventually we emerged in a nondescript village where we met a group of HIV-positive women.

We asked these women what the effect of the World Bank’s rice intensification project was on their lives. And they told us that this project had very little impact. These women were more or less subsistence farmers, farming tiny plots of land about the size of this stage and eating what they grew and very little else.

When they had money, they used it to buy either soap or school supplies.

The macro-economic stability generated by the World Bank project really had very little direct impact for these people: they were too marginal and peripheral to the economy to be affected by what was happening in the valley.

But it wasn’t like nothing could help them. A few years earlier, these women had taken their severely malnourished children to the local clinic to receive nutritional supplements.

The NGO that ran the clinic had taken a step further, and had loaned these women enough money to buy some piglets that they raised and sold for profit.

The NGO also arranged for these women to gain better access to markets for vegetables and had worked to bring in agricultural and veterinary extension officers.

These programs, very small scale development-oriented, had a huge effect on these women’s food security. And in the year that I visited, 2013, there were no malnourished children in that village.

The reason I’m telling you this story is because, to me anyway, Rwanda is a metaphor. A metaphor for the world, and the food security challenges we face in feeding 9 billion people. This metaphor has 2 parts.

First, Rwanda reminds us of what happens when population growth and a degraded environment, and political corruption and unplanned urbanization, collide with ethnic or cultural identities (and urbanization and cultural identity are what my two fellow panelists will be discussing this evening).

As a result, Rwanda joins a grim list of historic episodes where environmental and agricultural problems acted as a catalyst triggering social crises.

For instance, we know that the French Revolution came on the heels of El Niño-induced harvest failures that sent waves of migrants into Paris where they began protesting food prices.

And today, many believe that the Syrian Civil War was in part triggered because a massive drought hit the country between 2006 and 2009. This so undermined rural economies that farmers abandoned their land, and moved to cities where they became upset at political corruption and rife inequalities.

And even when ethnic tensions and political revolutions do not emerge, we have cases such as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s or the Irish Potato Famine, to stand as illustrative examples of what goes wrong when we fail to steward the food systems that nourish us.

So the first part of the Rwanda metaphor is to illustrate how high the stakes are when things go wrong with our food systems.

The second part of the metaphor is what we should do about this situation. And here we have the contrasting paradigms of the World Bank, with its focus on macro-economic efficiency, stability and boosting productivity as the key way of helping fix global food insecurity

… versus the non-governmental organization’s approach that focuses on equity, empowerment, gender, and poverty reduction amongst the most marginal.

In other words, the debate that I saw playing out in that small East African country is the debate we see playing out at a global scale today.

Today, many experts are concerned that population growth means that we need to produce a lot more food and that this will be made challenging given climate change.

Many experts are concerned that if we fail in this task there will be more genocides, more situations where farmers flood to ill-equipped cities and this will spark more conflicts.

But if only it were as simple as producing more food.

And so just like the World Bank rice project failed to address food insecurity among the marginal of Rwanda, just producing more food at the global scale won’t prevent future tragedies.

Consider this: according to the United Nations there are 2850 dietary calories available on the planet each day for every man, woman and child.

This means there is enough food for everyone.

Yet we live in a world where over 1 billion people are either overweight or obese — while 800 million remain under-nourished.

We live in a world where fully one-third of our food is wasted before it is consumed.

Given such sobering statistics, what faith do we have that simply producing more food will help anyone?

The answer to this debate, of course, is that we need both. We need the bread baskets of our world – the fertile plains and river valleys – to be managed efficiently. For instance, we need to steward inputs such as fertilizer and water and make sure that our farming systems produce the maximum amount of food with the minimum environmental impact.

All this is a necessary, but not a sufficient solution.

So simultaneously, we need to be much more ambitious in our goals for poverty reduction and helping people who are at the margins of the world’s economic system.

This means that strategies aimed at reducing food insecurity should focus on things like gender equity and the redistribution of wealth as well as developing better seeds or agricultural pest control methods.

I was warned not to be too depressing in these opening remarks… so by way of conclusion allow me to finish on two points. The first is that the great tragedies of history that I have mentioned are actually quite rare.

The overwhelming lesson from history is that the years, decades, and generations of progress and prosperity are far more common than the episodes of crisis and collapse.

Time and time again, we demonstrate ourselves to be an ingenious and adaptable species. We are canny toolmakers and have an ability to develop social structures that foster cooperation more often than they generate conflict.

So there’s demonstrable reason to be optimistic, and history shows our species to be brilliantly adaptive.

Of course, cases like the Dust Bowl or the Irish Potato Famine warn us not to take this adaptive capacity for granted.

These tragedies show us what can happen when we fail to appropriately manage our food systems.

But these are cautionary examples, and not historic norms.

My last point is to finish with a parable that comes either from Hebrew scripture or from Andrew Lloyd Webber… So no matter what side of the secular-sacred spectrum you sit on, you can enjoy this story.

It is the parable of the Pharaoh’s dream. Once upon a time, in ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh woke up having had a nightmare. In his dream, seven skinny and emaciated cows emerged out of the Nile River and devoured the seven fat happy cows that were grazing on the riverbank.

Unfortunately for the Pharaoh, the court magicians were not up to the task of interpreting this dream. But Pharaoh had a prisoner named Joseph, the fellow with a brightly coloured jacket, who was even then sitting in a dungeon cell.

And Joseph, of course, had a knack for interpreting dreams.

So we can imagine the scene:  Joseph dragged in the dead of night out of his prison cell and thrown at the feet of the Pharaoh. We can imagine Pharaoh explaining this perplexing dream to Joseph and Joseph replying:

“Well Pharaoh, it’s a weather report. A weather report from God. The seven fat cows? They represent the next seven years when food will be plentiful. They will be followed by seven years of famine, which are represented by the seven skinny cows.”

And then we can imagine Joseph, realizing that he is about to be handed a get out of jail free card, quickly adding some public policy advice.

He says, “You know, Pharaoh, you can avert this tragedy by storing some food and then the famine won’t ruin your land.”

The Pharaoh follows this advice and this is one of the few stories from the Old Testament that has a happy ending.

Today, there is a real concern that we are at the end of our good years. While the ancient Egyptians had to rely on divinely inspired dreaming to raise the alarm bell, we can be more precise: we have demographic and climactic models and we know that the earth’s population has rocketed up from a hundred million at the time of the Pharaoh, to 400 million in the middle ages, 5 billion in 1990, and 7 billion today.

By 2050 we will have to be feeding 9 billion.

All the while we must contend with the fact that thanks to climate change, the 2050s, 60s and 70s will not be as productive as the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

This shows us that one of the defining challenges of the 21st century to develop the ways and means to equitably, sustainably, and ethically feed the world’s growing population.

If we don’t, many are worried that the famine is coming and that this will “ruin our land.”

But by investing in programs to boost production, such as I saw at the World Bank Rice Project in Rwanda;

And by working at the grassroots level with poor and marginalized populations to reduce poverty and address gender inequality– like the programs I witnessed in the hillside village – we can take the kinds of pragmatic and practical steps that Joseph recommended to the Pharaoh.

So I am not necessarily pessimistic about our future.

I believe that with the right kind of policies we too can develop the tools so that our story, just like that of Pharaoh and Joseph, also has a happy ending; so that our famine won’t ruin our land.

Thank you very much.

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