National Geographic brings its food project to Chautauqua

ngm_may_2014_cvr1-275x400In the National Geographic Society’s flagship year of 1888, eminent French economist and statistician Pierre Émile Levasseur estimated the global population to be 1.483 billion.

An article from the New York newspaper The Sun published Levasseur’s findings and spoke with bright optimism for the future, writing: “But we are in the infancy of our history, and there is no doubt of our ability to support a far larger population… it will help us to conceive the almost illimitable capacity of our own land to support human life.”

Ah, those were the days.

Fast forward 126 years, where the population has increased nearly fivefold, hunger plagues 850 million people each day and more than 38 percent of the earth’s ice-free land has been modified to support agriculture.

Levasseur’s “illimitable” land is being pushed beyond its own capacity to support life, and still people starve to death daily. By 2050, the world’s population will exceed 9 billion people, and food production will need to double in order to meet nutritional demands.

The National Geographic Society thinks this is something the public should know.

Working in partnership with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) the National Geographic Society has embarked on an eight-month mission, titled “The Future of Food: How to feed our growing planet,” to raise awareness on issues of agriculture, beginning with a cover story in National Geographic magazine this May. The launch of a new website,, accompanies the publication by featuring in-depth reportage from biologists, journalists, chefs and videographers on the subject.

The magazine will run one food-centered feature article a month through the final 2014 issue in December. May’s cover story, “Eat: The New Food Revolution,” was written by professor Jonathan Foley who directs the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. Photographer Jim Richardson, who has worked with National Geographic for the past 30 years, provided photos of farmers from around the globe to supplement Foley’s article. Both men will be visiting Chautauqua Institution this week to speak on the subject of agriculture, with Richardson lecturing this morning in the Amphitheater alongside National Geographic executive environmental editor Dennis Dimick. Foley’s lecture will follow on Friday morning.

Foley’s May article outlined what he calls “A Five Step Plan to Feed the World,” that served as a general introduction to the motivation behind the society’s food project. In the article, he proposes a handful of industrial and lifestyle changes that, when implemented together, can enhance food production, alleviate world hunger and utilize global resources more effectively and efficiently.

Foley’s discussion about change on a worldwide scale works as a jumping off point for the more specifically focused articles that follow.

New York Times best-selling author and National Geographic contributor Tracie McMillan will be speaking in the Amp tomorrow morning with photographer Amy Toensing. McMillan and Toensing collaborated on a feature for the upcoming August issue of National Geographic that focuses on the social aspects of hunger here in America. The article titled “The New Face of Hunger” features families living with food insecurities in places like the Bronx, Houston suburbia and America’s bread basket, Iowa.

“The folks at Nat Geo wanted to make sure that the food series did turn its eye toward hunger in America,” McMillan said. “The idea was to really push Americans toward a discussion about food, and access and equity, along with discussing the issue of feeding a growing planet now that the climate is changing.”

It was McMillan and Toensing’s decision to narrow in on the social side of the issue in America, as opposed to the hard-numbered political or industrial discussions often used in media surrounding agriculture and food insecurity. Telling the story through people allows readers to find commonalities and relate on a deeper level to the subject.

Week Two at Chautauqua is going to be particularly eye-opening for those in attendance, because issues like hunger, land usage and sustainable agriculture are not topics typically at the forefront of Chautauquans’ minds. How many here go to sleep at night wondering how they will feed their families the next morning, or how 2 billion more people will be fed 35 years in the future?

The National Geographic Society’s food project aims to bring these thoughts into a relatable context for the more privileged population, so that changes can be made now to ensure security for present and future inhabitants of the Earth. Sustainability is defined as ensuring the demands of current generations without compromising the security of those to come, an ideal that has never been as critical as it is today. The hungry stomachs of the world depend on the eyes, ears and minds of those who can influence change, so please keep yours open this week.