Food For Thought

September 27, 2001

Originally published on September 27, 2001.

Thank you very much. It is a pleasure and an honor to be here. Since I only have ten minutes to talk about such a vast field, I’ll only touch on a few of my ideas.

First, I’d like to recognize the importance of common sense. I read in Matt Ridley’s Genome that Pioneer, the world’s biggest seed company, was developing a genetically engineered product destined to help starving people — a product where a gene from brazil nuts was introduced into soya beans. After quite a bit of testing of this product, someone thought to question if the few people worldwide who have an allergy to brazil nuts might also be allergic to this new product, and sure enough, it seems they would be. It was estimated that no more than two people per year could possibly die from the release of the product while hundreds of thousands suffering from malnutrition worldwide could be saved. The project to get this product to market was immediately terminated because of this small risk of mortality. Now, it seems to me if people aren’t willing to accept this risk to use this product, they could at least allow it to be used in other nations where the people using it would starve to death anyway and have nothing to lose and everything, including weight, to gain if the product is consumed there.

I’d like to point out that bees killed 41 Americans in 1993 before the so called killer bees had much of a presence in America, which means bees kill more than 20 times the number of Americans this product would likely kill if introduced to the USA. Are people rushing to make bees extinct? No, indeed, we have insect pathologists working to rid honey bees of disease because one-third of the US food production depends on bees as they pollinate flowers that turn into fruits and vegetables, plants, and trees. Americans also eat about 275 million pounds of honey each year. Had the soya bean product been part of our diet for many years already, we would not suddenly pull it off the market because two Americans died a year. To do so would simply lack of common sense.

Second, I know that the IFPRI is working to protect the environment, and my next suggestion is: don’t use so much packaging on food! Many of the food products that we have bought are only half full. The other half of the container is more garbage to dump in the trash. Even if it goes into recycling, energy, probably from non-renewable resources, is used at the plant. Although I understand the purpose, extra marketing is not a good compromise for environmental safety. In addition, it costs money (at the factory) and other non-renewable resources, namely cardboard, to create these oversized boxes of food. This money could have been spent on food, unless the following mission of the IFPRI succeeds.

Third, I agree with the IFPRI that world food prices should be lowered. Perhaps we should even go back to bartering. If country one is good at making wheat, and country two is good at making flour, if they start bartering, they can have bread for everyone. At the very least, countries with starving people must learn to produce something of value, which they can trade for food. It is unlikely that the inherent value of food will decrease. However, the value of countries’ major exports can change. Suppose we define a new currency called a food dollar, representing the cost of a meal.

Fourth, I want to suggest we look into the possibility of cultivating food either under water or on water or both. 72% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, versus only 28% by land. We only grow food directly on the land, so we are using but one level of farming. Oceans are miles deep and so can introduce a third dimension and potentially have a far greater area to farm. One idea for doing this would be by using underwater domes to grow food. We could blow a hole in each dome, put a pipe through the hole, and seal up the hole, with the pipe still in it. We’d run the pipe up above the surface of the water to a pump. We’d pump all the water out. Then, we’d send pill-shaped transport mechanisms to this place, carrying a few farmers and seeds to create a new farm. With some technological innovation (which we have plenty of) we could transport harvested crops back up the pipe to refineries on land, or underwater themselves. This would allow abandonment of current farms for living space. Much land is sparsely inhabited, and we may have surplus food, even after feeding all their fill, except for super-hungry Americans, who eat twice their fill (If the Chinese decided to live like the Americans, there would not be enough food for either country, even if all other food is surrendered to them).

Fifth, LINCOS (Little INtelligent COmmunitieS) is a project sponsored by M.I.T. that could provide assistance in several ways. LINCOS is a project where computer stations are set up in developing countries for people to be able to experiment with computer technology. Once a citizen masters the computer, he or she may then write software or create devices which can then be sold on the global market as a viable product. Such computer stations would also aid in the educations of citizens by means of educational software and a connection to the World Wide Web. One use for computer education would be to show children whose parents have unfortunately died prematurely how to farm, though obviously this would not be a preferred substitute for human teachers or parents. Technology would be a substantial benefit to those unknown but hard-working craftsmen in developing countries–they could open their own website and begin e-business trading. It would truly open a whole new world.

At first, I myself thought using LINCOS to help starving communities sounded like it might be a childlike and ridiculous idea, but I wrote someone at the MIT Media Lab and he informed me that they are currently working on something very similar.

Also, I would like to mention to you that last but not least, food security is highly related to military activity in the area concerned and that we need to find a way to keep the peace in developing countries.

Those are all my ideas! Thank you very much, and have a good day.

Sustainable Food Security For All By 2020 Conference