University employs a multidisciplinary approach to food crises

Feeding the world is complicated. And if there’s any major public issue that engages many academic disciplines at once, this is surely one. Agriculture. Environment. Economics. Engineering. Politics. Human nutrition. Health sciences. Geography. Geology. Sociology. It’s a long and by no means complete list.
Dean of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Chandra Madramootoo shows off some terrific tomatoes at the Macdonald Campus Farm, where research continues into trying to develop more resilient and more nutritious crops. / Photo: Owen Egan

As food price hikes loom, conference to study political effects of crisis

By Doug Sweet

Feeding the world is complicated. And if there’s any major public issue that engages many academic disciplines at once, this is surely one. Agriculture. Environment. Economics. Engineering. Politics. Human nutrition. Health sciences. Geography. Geology. Sociology. It’s a long and by no means complete list.

And feeding the world isn’t only complicated, it’s again an urgent problem. A major food crisis that erupted in 2007 and 2008 brought starvation, political turmoil, violence and death to several parts of the planet. This fall, the world is again staring down the barrel of yet another food crisis and McGill is again rolling up its sleeves in a number of ways to try to help find lasting solutions to some longstanding problems and some that can arrive suddenly.

A severe drought that has afflicted the U.S. Midwest and other crucial grain-growing areas of the world, floods in different countries and wildfires in still more dry regions are combining to put sharp upward pressure on the prices of important staples, including corn, wheat, sugar, rice and soybeans. These hikes, beginning to be felt in world markets, could generate food prices that are simply too high for the populations of many developing countries, not to mention the disadvantaged of the developed world. The higher prices for basic commodities usually find their way to grocery store shelves about six to nine months down the road.

While on-the-shelf food-price hikes aren’t expected to be overwhelming, it doesn’t take much for higher prices to have a significant impact on those who live near the poverty line, says Phil Oxhorn, founding director of the McGill Institute for the Study of International Development.

“A lot of the work we do in general has a lot of relevance to this. … If you look at the developing world, there are many, many examples going back a long, long time of how food-price increases lead to riots and violence and social mobilization. And the reason for that is that this is really a tax on the poor.

Politically volatile

“You know, if food prices go up by 10 per cent, then you and I are not really going to change our diets. But if you’re living at the poverty level or near the poverty level and your food prices go up 10 per cent, it’s going to have a real impact on your lifestyle. And it could threaten to put you into absolute poverty where you simply don’t have enough money to make ends meet. Which is why it’s also so politically volatile.”

Philip Oxhorn, Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of International Development. / Photo: Owen Egan

Which is also why this year’s annual conference on food security, running from Oct. 16-18, ( has such a timely theme: Food Prices and Political Instability.

This conference, now in its fifth year, is one of the major outreach efforts McGill makes to address the serious global issue of trying to ensure the world can, in fact, feed itself.

“Both CIDA and IDRC which have been financial supporters of our conferences have also had their staff participate in all the conferences and I am sure that this participation has strengthened their contributions to programs such as the Canadian International Food Security Fund,” says Chandra Madramootoo, Dean of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

The conference, Madramootoo said, has brought people together from different parts of the world who have different perspectives on the food crisis – whether as producers, researchers, or those involved with non-governmental organizations and government agencies – and they have solutions and best practices that can help others, even if they live on different continents.

“People have learned from each other, they’ve seen that their problems are not in isolation when it comes to food and nutrition and hunger and malnutrition, that we’re all grappling with the same issues, the same hurdles. The more that people can share best practices and share information, successes, failures – I think that’s what the conference is helping to do.”

Drought effect

And this new crisis could be harder to deal with than the last one.

“There are some differences between this year and 07-08,” Madramootoo says. “I guess the one striking difference is the drought. Whereas in 2008 it was a sort of a coming together of a lot of other factors – we had the financial crisis, we had rising energy prices, we had speculation … with food being used as a tradable commodity by investors and so on.

“The analysis at that time also showed that there had been a major underinvestment in agriculture by particularly the developing countries, the ones that were the most affected, and they were seeing that their lack of investment was having an impact in 2008. … Whereas this year, really, it’s a combination of natural disasters. … So I think that the difference between this crisis and what first emerged in 2008 has been climatic.”

And while there are some things humans can do to control investment, speculation and other economic factors, there’s not much we can do about the weather. Does this mean that solving this crisis could be more difficult than fixing what caused the crisis of 2007-08?

“Absolutely,” Madramootoo says.

Three-pronged approach

McGill addresses complex social problems such as a food crisis in three ways, Madramootoo says, through research, teaching and public outreach.

Some of McGill’s food-related research includes Jaswinder Singh’s look into new varieties of drought-resistant crops and Danielle Donnelly’s research into salt-tolerant crops.

Then there’s all the food we waste. “We know that about 40 to 70 per cent of food that is being produced is lost before it even gets to the table,” Madramootoo says. This is the result of improper storage, disease or problems with transportation.

McGill has a number of researchers, including Vijaya Raghavan, Michael Ngadi and Valerie Orsat, who are looking at post-harvest systems to try to reduce losses.

“That is a significant amount [of wasted food],” Madramootoo says. “You think about all the energy, the carbon, the water that went in to produce that food and then it gets lost, it’s really a sad state of affairs. So I think the work that they’re doing on trying to reduce that loss is going to make a very major contribution.”

More nutritious

Of course, much of food production is affected,

often suddenly and severely, by weather and climate. Here, Ian Strachan, in climatology and meterology at the Macdonald Campus, is looking at trying to predict climate change and the effects of climate change, and how that would affect agriculture, as well as greenhouse gas emissions and how they affect agriculture.

And there’s also the political and social dimension to the food crisis, says Oxhorn, and his institute pays attention to that.

Another element of McGill’s research into food security lies in the whole area of nutrition, because if we can make existing food supplies more nutritious, we need less of it.

“We know that kids between the ages of 0 and 5 are at the most vulnerable level,” Madramootoo says. “Those are the ones who die first from hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity.

“And so the work of the people in the School of Dietetics and Human Nutrition, in trying to look at the development of fortified foods and making those available to communities where food is scarce, to help them build up their immunity and so on…. I think this is absolutely some of the most spectacular work going on at the moment in the Faculty and in the Institute.”

And then there’s teaching. One of the things that has been said about the food crisis is that even if we were to put all the money in place, we don’t have the highly skilled people in the field who could move that money into actual deliverables in the field.

“Our Canadian and Quebec students want to work overseas, they want to understand international issues and I think the more that we can do in our teaching programs – it’s important to build that skill base,” Madramootoo says.