Nestle makes and sells tens of thousands of food products around the world. Its American brands include Lean Cuisine, Gerbers, Carnation, Haagen-Dazs, Stouffers, Lean Cuisine — the list goes on and on. Measured by total revenue, it is the world’s largest food company. Looking down the road, the company’s success depends on lots of people eating lots of food, which depends on an uninterrupted supply of hundreds of crops, which depends on productive farms. So Nestle is understandably concerned about a sustainable future, especially for agriculture. The company’s efforts in this arena are organized through an office called Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Nestle — SAIN — headed by an energetic, dedicated, and very knowledgeable long-time agricultural expert, Hans Joehr. Thanks to an invitation from Mr. Joehr, I spoke to the SAIN group last month about the “Alchemy of Air” material, the historical importance of synthetic fertilizer, and how it can help ensure agricultural sustainability. It was a great visit. Vevey, the Swiss home of Nestle, is one of the world’s most beautiful small cities, sitting on the shore of Lake Geneva and looking over toward France. I had a good set of talks with people at Nestle, plus tours of the local Cailler chocolate and Gruyere cheese factories. Special thanks to Hans J. for a delightful visit (especially our dinner!) and Dionys Forster, my guide to the area.
Or at least on video. A talk I gave in Paris on the Haber-Bosch discovery has been posted here on YouTube. I delivered the speech at a meeting of the IFA (International Fertilizer Association) last December in one if the ornate meeting rooms of a mansion built by a nephew of Napoleon — an elegant grand home now remade into a five-star hotel called, somewhat incongruously, the Shangri-La. Ah, Paris!
Visiting with friends at IFDC, an international soil fertility research and policy think tank in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and thinking — as the analysts here think — about the big picture of providing food for the world’s hungriest people. It’s not just about improving crop yields (although that’s a vital step) with all of the associated issues of soil health, water availability, seed choices, fertilizer, pest control, weed control, mechanization, etc. etc. It’s also about the entire economic ecosystem that surrounds the farm, from setting prices to communicating market information to putting in good roads and building better storage facilities, everything from education and government policy to infrastructure and sales systems. It’s a complicated, critical human endeavor, and the IFDC folks are working on every front to make sure that it’s working for the people who need it most.
The picture above illustrates one of IFDC’s signature achievements — a program to boost rice yields while at the same time cutting pollution through the use of deep placement urea fertilizer in fields in Bangladesh. It’s been proven to increase incomes and improve the lives of smallholder farmers while at the same time cutting nitrogen pollution in local waterways. This is just the kind of work needed to help humanity meet the food needs of the coming century.
I’ll be visiting Switzerland to deliver a talk to Nestle food and agricultural scientists and staff this spring. That’s their headquarters in the photo — at Vevey on Lake Geneva. A tour of the chocolate factory is on offer! But Nestle’s about a lot more than candy — it was started back in the 1860s by a pharmacist/inventor who came up with ideas for making food less perishable and more nutritious — so, everything from powdered coffee (Nescafe) and tea (Nestea) to instant hot chocolate (Nesquik) and baby formula. Henri Nestle even dabbled in fertilizer development. Today the company is one of the world’s leading multinationals with operations in almost 200 countries and more than 300,000 employees. I’m amazed that I didn’t know just how wide-ranging their operations are — USA-familiar brands they own include Carnation, Dreyers, Gerbers, Purina, Lean Cuisine, . . the list goes on — and they put an emphasis on R&D.
An interesting piece in Nature argues that it’s time to move beyond GDP as the be-all and end-all measure of prosperity. As the authors rightly point out, Gross Domestic Product is a crude economic yardstick, developed during the post-WWII years, that takes into account only a fraction of the factors that create strong economies and prosperous societies. I agree that it’s time we take other things into consideration, like long-term environmental effects and people’s general satisfaction with their lives. GDP measures the value of transactions — not the quality of life.
Part of my family hailed originally from the Ohio area, which might be why I find something homey and almost comforting about traveling to that part of the world. It’s always good to talk with the men and women who grow our food. On the other hand, temperatures this coming week in the area are predicted to average around 13 degrees F. Polar Vortex! I think I’d better pack my overcoat . . . .
I am taking a few days to see the sights in Paris after delivering the commemorative address at the council meeting of the IFA, the International Fertilizer Industry Association. This was both a chance to meet the men and women who are feeding the world (literally, almost half the world’s population is alive thanks to their work), and also to get a more informed sense of the challenges facing the industry in the next decades. It is remarkable how much effort is being directed toward issues around sustainability. I was very well treated by the IFA leaders and staff (thanks especially to Charlotte Hebebrand), stayed in a truly grand hotel, ate great food, learned new things, and now have the chance to wander around one of my favorite cities in the the world. Special treats so far include lunch in the Auberge Nicolas Flamel (a restaurant in the house built by the legendary alchemist), the chance to see the Christmas lights on the Champs-Elysees, eating pain au chocolate every morning, and of course seeing the Eiffel Tower by day and night.
Back from two terrific weeks in Chile. I spent most of it in Santiago (the huge, energetic capital city), plus a few days in the great desert of the north, the Atacama, the driest place on earth. Chile is like an island — Andes on one side, Pacific on the other, the Atacama to the north and Antarctica to the south — with a unique culture, its own politics, even its own brand of Spanish. I learned a lot. Gracious people, great seafood, a very good time. Many thanks to the organizers of The First International Congress on Scientific Culture at Andres Bello University (special nod to Andres Gomberoff, Natalia Mackenzie, and Carla Firmani) and to my hosts on a terrific trip to the Atacama, Eugenio Ponce and Patricio Garcia Mendez at SQM.
Heading to Santiago, Chile, this weekend, for The First International Congress on Scientific Culture at Andres Bello University. I’ll be speaking about the impact of technology on food production, and issues around population growth.
It’s a great chance to spend some time exploring one of the great cities of South America. I like Chile a lot, but have only been in the far north of the country. This will be my first time in the capital — with nearly 7 million people it has almost twice the population of my entire state. More on that later.
This recent op-ed in the New York Times got it right about population growth.
It’s time for us to get over the old population-growth=doom mindset of the 1970s (based on the assumption that human population growth inevitably leads to disaster because we’re like bacteria in a Petri dish and we’re going to consume all our resources until they’re gone — and then we’re all going to die!). This has long been accepted as common sense, received wisdom from Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich (read The Population Bomb if you want a good chuckle about the pitfalls of predicting the future).
Malthus was wrong. So was Ehrlich.
Ester Boserup was closer to right. She’s one of my heroes. True, by all “natural” standards, there are far too many homo sapiens on the planet. The low-or-no-tech carrying capacity of the planet for humans — let’s say, the max number we could feed if we farmed every available acre with the best organic methods possible — is about 4.5 billion — if we all eat a low-calorie, mostly vegetarian diet. That’s the human population the earth could support if we were like any other animal (well, any other animal that could do organic farming).
But we’re not like any other animal, at least in one important way. As Ester realized, humans bring something new to the table: The ability to adapt to growing population by advancing our technology. In other words, we’re not like bacteria in a Petri dish. We’re more likely to open up the dish, explore outside, then invent some way to make a lot more food, say out of air (see World’s Greatest Invention?). Or something else clever that no other animal can do.
The results: We’re at 7 billion and climbing fast. Yet everyone on earth, on average, is getting more calories per day than at any time in history. Instead of mass famine, we’re eating better than ever. And we can continue to produce enough food, using currently available technologies, to feed a global population of at least 10 billion — which, interestingly enough, according to the United Nations mid-level estimates, is about where the human population will top out during this century. That topping out, by the way, has less to do with food availability than with changing fertility rates, and those rates are determined not by scarcity but by plenty — fertility rates drop as a family’s income goes up and women become more highly educated.