Over the next several weeks, I’ll be attending the University of Washington’s food and environment lecture series and harvesting knowledge from a diverse array of food-system luminaries. As I move from the politics of the plate with Marion Nestle to ethnobotany with Gary Nabhan, I hope to share as much of that bounty as I can with Grist readers. Look forward to discussions with a lot of spice!

In an introduction to the lecture series this past week, Beth Wheat, founder of the University of Washington student farm, said the farm is “helping the most urbanized generation reconnect with a sense of place.” I realized she had identified some of the reasons why I engage with food issues — through organic gardening, CSAs, community cooking, and attending lectures — here in my place, Seattle.

Gebisa Ejeta speaking.Gebisa Ejeta: Listen up!Photo: ILRI

Ironically, the evening’s conversation lead immediately into an issue that seems so vast that it almost defies the specificity of place: global hunger.

The emerging challenges of growing and getting enough food to the nearly one billion hungry people in the world are many and varied, as the evening’s speaker, Purdue University professor of plant breeding and genetics, Gebisa Ejeta, made clear: nutritional deficiencies, ecosystem limits, climate change, and energy scarcity, for starters. Ejeta knows this intimately, having risen out of poverty in Ethiopia to become a world-renowned American researcher who received the 2009 World Food Prize for his work in breeding a drought-tolerant, parasite-resistant variety of sorghum, a staple food crop in Africa.

While Ejeta spoke to the expectant mix of students and local professionals, the need to feed more than nine billion people by mid-century — when today we are failing to adequately feed six billion — seemed to reverberate through the cavernous lecture hall.

“We’ll have to learn to produce as much food in the next four decades as we have since the beginning of civilization,” Ejeta said. He then jumped into the science, technology, and policy necessary to bring the benefits of agricultural research — and the petrochemical inputs of the Green Revolution — to Africa and his native Ethiopia.

Sub-Saharan Africa, the site of so much hunger in the world, is one of the few places left where industrially produced fertilizers have yet to be used widely. In other words, Africa is the place where the Green Revolution has yet to “succeed.” An expert in plant breeding and genetics, I suppose it makes sense that Ejeta would see the problem of hunger most easily — though not solely — solved through the doubling or tripling of crop yields from limited farmland.

However, I was struck by the fact he also pointed out that as much as half of all the world’s food goes to waste [PDF]. Based on that stark fact alone, finding ways to more intelligently distribute the food we’re already growing seems like the fruit that’s hanging so low, it’s already on the ground. But just as energy efficiency suffers from image issues, does “food efficiency” similarly lack the glamour to attract the incentives for change? How do we get a hungry, wasteful world to place greater value on moving food from where it goes to waste to where it is most needed?

Inevitably, someone asked Professor Ejeta about the role of organic, local-input agriculture in feeding Africa. The young questioner cited a 2008 report on food security and organic agriculture in Africa [PDF] from the United Nations Environment Program and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, which found that:

Organic agriculture can increase agricultural productivity and can raise incomes with low-cost, locally available and appropriate technologies, without causing environmental damage.

Knowing his Seattle audience, Ejeta answered, “I think organic agriculture is great … but not likely to feed the world.” What he said next took me off guard: “I think the most organic agriculture is in Africa. They don’t put anything in the soil there and that’s degrading the land.” He seemed, like many others who favor conventional farming techniques, to equate organic farming with a lack of technology, and not cutting-edge practices that actively seek to build soil fertility and natural pest defenses. This is particularly alarming when places like India have run into a wall after whole-heartedly buying into large-scale, chemical-based farming and are now switching to organic. If the brightest minds in agricultural research aren’t fully engaging with the subtleties of organic agriculture, how do we ensure that organic practices are included in the slew of possible solutions to hunger in developing nations? Especially in the competition for limited financial resources? How do we address and correct this “anti-technology” stigma that seems to follow organic farming methods around the world?

An issue which did not come up, but which should be top-of-mind in any discussion of global hunger, is the wisdom of growing so much food (using so many oil-intensive inputs) to feed the many livestock animals America eats — and then attempting to export that industrial corn-to-meat model to countries like China. If we want to truly free developing nations from the yoke of external aid — that “necessary evil” described by Ejeta — how can America recommend, in good conscience, these massively resource-intensive and massively expensive industrial practices? Especially when environmentally responsible meat-eating can be achieved and could help fill gaping holes in nutrition in places like Africa?

In the end, I thought Ejeta effectively portrayed the massive, looming task of feeding a growing population with limited resources. He made a forceful case for a new “Green Revolution” in Africa in conjunction with “purpose-driven research” and a commitment to building local capacity. On the other hand, his outright dismissal of organic agriculture felt less than convincing. I left the lecture provoked to think harder about the complex role of technology in reducing hunger, but eager to consider other perspectives. Thankfully the lecture series is just starting!