Sustainable Sparks: Patrick Cortbaoui on securing food for the future

Managing Director of the Margaret A Gilliam Institute for Global Food Security shares his take on the future of our food systems
“This planet is finite and we need to make sure that the change we make now is not just about current problems, but has also taken into account the future ones too,” says Patrick Cortbaoui. “There are no shortcuts.” Courtesy of Patrick Cortbaoui

Food security is one of the fundamental challenges to sustainability of the 20th century, with approximately 11.7 percent of the global population experiencing extreme food insecurity, according to The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022 (SOFI).

The Margaret A. Gilliam Institute for Global Food Security, founded in 2010, works towards finding sustainable solutions and advancing annual agricultural productivity growth while conserving natural resources and minimizing environmental degradation. Managing Director of the Institute, Patrick Cortbaoui is one of the many professionals affiliated to the Institute working tirelessly to end global hunger by reducing food insecurities.

From his background in engineering at McGill to working with communities in Kenya, Cortbaoui’s work has been varied, as he now joins the Sustainability Projects Fund (SPF).

The SPF is the largest fund of its kind in Canada, valued at $1 million annually, and has the mandate to build a culture of sustainability on McGill’s campuses through the seed funding of interdisciplinary projects. 

Tell me a bit about yourself. What brought to you your current work?

My scientific background is in engineering, food security, international development, food resiliency, food sovereignty, and nutrition sensitive agriculture.

After I finished my Bachelor’s degree, I worked for the United Nations and private sectors which is how I decided I wanted to work with and change the lives of the most vulnerable people by working on food security-related matters.

I ended up going back for my PhD at McGill and started working on applied research, rather than just doing research for the sake of publishing papers. This is where I started to really think about how I can accomplish real tasks and enact change, which is how I eventually through years of volunteering and research ended up at the Margaret A Gilliam Institute for Global Food Security.

The overall goal of the Institute is based on the three pillars of education, outreach, and research. We act as a hub of knowledge in food security and not only conduct research, but also a kind of consulting platform for many stakeholders working in Canada and abroad on food security-related matters.

What are some of the ways that food systems participate in sustainability that people don’t usually think of?

A big one that is so important to realize for people is that when you waste an apple, you’re not wasting the just apple itself, you’re wasting all the natural resources behind it to produce. You waste water, soil, and energy. You also waste all the emissions from preparing and transporting the food.

We live on a finite earth where we have finite resources. Food waste is so much bigger than just not eating the food, it’s about all the natural resources that are wasted along that way that could have been conserved.

The other really important thing to remember which shocked me is that food security is not always a shortage of available food. The one extreme is hunger, but the other extreme is actually obesity, which is a very big problem in poorer areas, especially where affordable, healthy options are just not available. This is a food and health crisis too, and it’s how I personally realized that food security is a very complex thing to deal with.

As a recent addition to the SPF Governance Council, how do you see the SPF playing a role in transforming sustainable systems on campus?

When I was invited to be involved [with the SPF], I was thrilled because I was familiar with the type of projects that came out of it, and I couldn’t wait to help approve them. I’m so proud that I am on this  Governance Council, and I’m proud that McGill has made this funding a priority.

It’s been amazing to see how students can orient their different perspectives in terms of sustainability challenges, because they are going to be the future leaders that are in charge of this planet. I always say that the solution for these big problems is somewhat in the hands of the youth because they are going to be the ones that inherit this future, which is why I think that it’s so great we have this fund that youth can apply to and get support from.

Can individual action make an impact on changing food systems? How can everyday people get involved in encouraging more sustainable practices?

The simple answer to this question is yes. I will never underestimate the impact of the individual. There are some limitations with the magnitude of change, but each one of us is responsible to do something. We need to be walking that line between including individuals and holding institutions accountable.

In terms of individual action, one of the best things you can do is just start in your own home. Make sure you are only buying what you will use and try to cut down on how much you throw away. It’s also great to talk to others. I always teach my nieces and nephews about how we get different kinds of food to us because it’s so important to teach people early. We need this paradigm shift, and as I said, a lot of that is up to the future generations, which means the teaching is up to us now.

What are some of the challenges you see us facing in the coming years in terms of food security?

There’s a huge gap between the academic world and real-life experiences. When people ask me if I have a lab, I always tell them, “Yes I do; it’s the community of people I am working with.”

My philosophy is to engage [the community] from the beginning of every single intervention in their food systems. I consider these stakeholders the designers, so instead of telling them what needs to be fixed, I give them the support or resources they need to empower themselves.

They don’t need us to tell them how to grow food – trust me, people usually know their land a lot better than I would. They have been doing it for generations.

If you want to really help, create support systems, fight corruption, draft policies. This is the type of change we need, and it’s not as glamorous as a lot of “pure” research, so it doesn’t get done enough.

When you’re working with a community, the people don’t care about the scientific articles you are creating, or the details of your findings, they are looking for a way to translate your findings into something that they can use to build resiliency. I think that translating this gap is a major challenge right now, but it’s a solution that we can work on.

If you had one message to share with the McGill community about sustainability and food, what would it be?

There is no magic trick or miracle that is going to show up and save us, it’s going to take dedication and grit.

In order to grow a tree, you could add tonnes of chemical fertilizers and pesticides today which might make it grow better or faster, but what will happen to that dirt in the future? What about the fruit that has been sprayed? How will we pollinate the flowers if we have poisoned the bees?

This planet is finite and we need to make sure that the change we make now is not just about current problems, but has also taken into account the future ones too. There are no shortcuts.