Davos 2017: Graham MacDonald on global food systems

In advance of his presentation at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, the Reporter spoke to Graham MacDonald from the Department of Geography about the state of global food systems.
Graham MacDonald will present his lecture “Precision tracking of agricultural trade to render food systems more sustainable” at the World Economic Forum on Jan. 20.

The Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum will take place on Jan. 17 – 20, in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland. Over 2,500 leaders from business, government, international organizations, civil society, academia, media and the arts will convene under the theme Responsive and Responsible Leadership.

McGill, led by Principal Suzanne Fortier, will be the only Canadian university member of the Global University Leaders Forum. Principal Fortier will host an IdeasLab led by two researchers from the Faculty of Science, and one researcher from the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, on the theme Shaping a Sustainable World.

In advance of the Forum, the Reporter spoke to Graham MacDonald from the Department of Geography on his presentation “Precision tracking of agricultural trade to render food systems more sustainable.”

Your work addresses “food systems.” Why should we study food as a ‘system’?

“Food system” is a sort of catch-all term used to describe the complex web of production, distribution, and consumption activities that link us to our food – everything from how and where farmers grow food to the social, cultural, and economic considerations of what we eat. Questions about food systems are inherently multidisciplinary in nature, and really benefit from collaboration among researchers from disparate fields – it’s been really inspiring to me when, for example, soil scientists and social justice researchers can come together to discuss a common theme. There is so much excitement at McGill these days at the interface between food and sustainability. It’s a great atmosphere to be studying food systems.

We often forget that food is part of an incredibly complex system, with billions of actors globally. When speaking about this subject, I always try to emphasize that we’re all part of a food system. We are movers and shapers of this complex web. It beckons the adage “you are what you eat.”

Why is it important to study food trade?

As with other aspects of our economy, food has become increasingly influenced by globalization. There has been immense growth in international food trade in the past two decades. More than 20 per cent of all of the calories we grow in croplands around the world are now traded across international borders. For many countries, imported food has become a critical component of their food supplies.

While trade is typically thought of as a matter of economics, a growing body of research views it from an environmental science perspective. We’re particularly interested in more biophysical dimensions of food trade, such as how countries devote land and water resources to producing exports, or the greenhouse gas emissions embodied in these exported foods.

While the largest global food staples – such as wheat and rice – are still predominantly produced and consumed within national borders, global demand for a few key commodity crops, such as soybean and palm oil, has fuelled much of the recent growth in agricultural trade. These commodity crops have often been at the forefront of larger environmental concerns, such as tropical deforestation. By studying these global supply chains, we gain perspective on the drivers of and solutions to some of these problems.

Should we strive to ‘eat local’?

This is a difficult question – and ultimately a personal one because it reflects our values. My perspective is that there is no ‘right’ answer, but there is a great deal of nuance depending on the context. Typically, the energy and resources involved in producing food will dwarf those involved in transportation, even when food is transported over really vast distances. So, part of the question involves consideration of how management of more local agricultural systems compares to foods produced farther away.

From a Canadian perspective, some benefits of trade are clear. Many Canadian farmers produce goods destined for global markets, such as wheat, beef, and canola. It is easy to take for granted the array of produce available in our supermarkets, even in the depths of a Canadian winter. Despite our vast resources and relatively small population, Canada still imports about 15 per cent of its total calorie supply. Those imports include the fruits and vegetables that we either do not produce domestically, or that we can source at lower prices on international markets.

We have been investigating how the global trade network influences agricultural efficiency by considering how global resource use might look different in a hypothetical situation with no agricultural trade. These scenarios suggest that trade can help to improve the average efficiency of land, fertilizer, and water use on the global scale. However, efficiency gains are by no means universal across all trade situations. There are many cases where trade happens despite relative losses in agricultural efficiency. Ultimately, efficiency is just one indicator that can inform our understanding of agricultural sustainability.

What are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities in the global food system today?

Our food systems are under pressure to meet changing demands for food in the coming decades. While population growth is part of the equation, a lot of the pressure comes from changing dietary demand, and in particular, growing demand for more resource-intensive animal products. At the same time, roughly 25 per cent of the global calorie supply is lost or wasted, either within supply chains or at the retail and household level.

There is a great deal of evidence that, with the right steps, we can already ‘feed the world’ (and the future) under current technology and with the current agricultural land base. Solutions include addressing agricultural efficiency, diets, and waste. Even small changes can have a big cumulative effect at the global scale.

There is no silver bullet that can address everything in such a complex system, and there are often trade-offs or unintended consequences arising from any one solution targeted at a specific problem. I’m most excited about “silver buckshot” solutions in the food system. Sustainability science is so important because it acknowledges this tension. Working with colleagues at McGill and elsewhere, I am optimistic about looking for large-scale food system strategies that can address more than one problem at the same time, while keeping in mind potential trade-offs.

Watch Graham MacDonald talk about global food systems by clicking the thumbnail below.