Dennis Dimick and Jim Richardson were both raised on small farms — Dimick in Oregon, and Richardson in Kansas — and grew up alongside wheat, corn and livestock. But, on the cusp of the Green Revolution, change was in the air.
“Even then, it was small and traditional. We always understood that farming was changing very quickly — even as far back as the 1950s,” Richardson said. “The Green Revolution came along, and a lot of that knowledge transformed people’s thinking about where our food came from and where it could be grown.”
Dimick, executive environmental editor of National Geographic, and Richardson, a photographer for the magazine, have had a working partnership of more than 20 years. Together, they have traveled the globe and photographed stories on food and agriculture. The duo will use their collaborative stories as the backbone for a lecture at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater, kicking off National Geographic’s weeklong partnership with Chautauqua Institution on the theme “Feeding a Hungry Planet.”
Dimick calls the quandary of feeding the world without further disrupting an already degraded climate “one of the great challenges in decades ahead for humanity.” Stories spanning the last two decades will serve as a jumping-off point for a conversation about inherent issues and needed changes in the global food system, as the world population is expected to reach 9 billion mouths by 2050.
“What we’re trying to do is move beyond a lecture and try to make this more personal,” Dimick said.
Making abstract and far-away stories personal has been Richardson and Dimick’s mission throughout their tenures at National Geographic.
“Relatively few people get to go out and really see the depth and the breadth of the worldwide enterprise that is agriculture,” Richardson said. “Our job has been to create visual narratives to parallel the literary narratives of the writers. But more, it has been to give our readers a vision of the world.”
In the Amphitheater, striking and somewhat surreal images will be bolstered by a realistic discussion of how the planet has reached the challenge that is feeding 9 billion people and the ways this unwieldy task can be tackled.
“We’re running out of prairies, we’re running out of forests, and more people are wanting to eat higher on the food chain,” Dimick said. “We’re reaching a conundrum and so the question is, how can we do a better job of making use of the land, resources and water?
“We have to figure out how to do a better job with what we’ve got. Part of this has to do with the issue of building resilience in the food system,” Dimick continued. “A lot of these things take time and I don’t know if it’s a question of hope or not, we have to get to work.”
According to the pair, getting to work will involve coalitions between unlikely groups, like organic farming and industrial agriculture, to utilize all methods possible to produce enough food for a swiftly growing population with an increasing appetite for dairy and meat.
“Now, we are in a situation where one-size-fits-all solutions are not necessarily going to solve our problems,” Dimick said.
Both Richardson and Dimick agree diverse solutions — including monoculture, big agricultural, along with small, diversified family and organic farms — will be answers in different areas. Humans will also have to start making compromises about their diets, eating lower on the food chain and reducing a reliance on meat and dairy products. Part of the solution, according to Richardson, will also involve a shifting Western mindset on agriculture across the world.
“Someone like me, growing up on a farm in the Midwest of America, is still amazed how farming takes place in other parts of the world using systems that I could never have imagined,” he said.
As Richardson explained, more than 50 percent of food grown across the world is on farms of three hectares or less, often harvested by women or a family relying on the food for subsistence. He cautions that “the kinds of answers that we want to dispense from here aren’t answering the questions that are being asked someplace else,” and feeding everyone will rely on global collaboration outside of a Western paradigm. But first, it’s imperative to know the background.
“It’s important to tell the story because in this culture, in this country, people have become disconnected from where they get their food,” Dimick said. “The number of people who are actively engaged in agriculture is a very tiny percentage of the U.S. population. What we’re trying to do is to reconnect eaters with farmers, to reconnect eaters to the land that produces the food.”
Though it’s a daunting subject, with many questions and few answers, Richardson assures a good time will be had by all who attend the lecture this morning.
“The whole issue is actually a great deal more fun than most people give it credit for. The story of how we produce our food on planet earth is very much the human story,” Richardson said. “The greatest issue is that too many times our problems are seen as unsolvable and this is not unsolvable.”