Dimick, Richardson illustrate world agriculture

Kreable Young | Staff Photographer
Dennis Dimick, executive environmental editor of National Geographic (left), and Jim Richardson, a National Geographic photographer speak on the topic of food and “Feeding a Hungry Planet” at the morning lecture in the Amphitheater on Monday.

“Food transforms the world’s landscapes,” said Dennis Dimick, executive environmental editor at National Geographic. “Forty percent of the land area of the Earth has been transformed for agriculture.” Those transformations and the many faces behind it were vibrantly presented to the Amphitheater audience on Monday as Dimick, joined by National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson, showed photographs from their 25-year collaboration exploring the world’s agricultural systems. 

Dimick, an Oregon native, is concerned with what he calls the “nexus between food, water and energy,” and “where human aspiration and the planet collide.” Richardson is from Kansas and has been photographing daily life in the state’s small town of Cuba for 30 years.

The talk marked the first day in this week’s lecture theme, “Feeding a Hungry Planet,” presented in partnership with National Geographic. Dimick and Richardson focused their presentation on the challenge of feeding 9.7 billion people, the projected world population by 2050.

That population has exploded in the last century. In 1900, there were 1.6 billion people in the world; today, there are more than 7 billion. But, Dimick and Richardson said, if the world can meet the challenge of sustainably feeding those 9.7 billion mouths by 2050, the population may level out due to lower birth rates in wealthier countries.

The key is getting to that point of stability, they said.

The issues are complicated, and no single solution will suffice. Dimick and Richardson demonstrated the complexity of food issues through slideshows of their National Geographic photographic features on water, sustainable agriculture, genetically modified organisms, food safety, the American heartland, soil, heirloom plants, food affordability and population growth. Both aim to connect readers to the sources of their food by photographing the people who produced it, paying homage to the connection between man, plant, animal and soil.

“This relationship is just part of our being, and we can’t do without it,” Richardson said.

“We’re trying to help people understand the scale of this enterprise,” Dimick added. At the same time, he said, “it’s personal. Farming is personal. Food is personal. And the food we eat — all of it — comes from somebody who is working hard to grow the food for each of us.”

Those hardworking farmers, from large industrial agriculture workers to small-scale organic farmers, are as diverse as the regions they inhabit, the crops they grow and the livestock they raise. All play a valuable role in determining the world’s environmental future.

“All of them are going to be necessary,” Richardson said. “All of them are going to be important. We’re going to need all of their knowledge, all of their effort and more.”

As for specific solutions to the myriad problems facing the food system, the two proposed additional funding for public agricultural research and extension in the U.S. and abroad. Educating girls can lower global birth rates, and developing crops that are resistant to drought, heat, pests and flooding can increase food production.

Richardson and Dimick also said preserving genetic diversity of crops is vital, showing a photograph of a seed bank in the Arctic operated by the Global Crop Diversity Trust. There, the seeds of major crops worldwide are stored at such a high elevation that, even if all of the ice in the world melted, the seeds would stay dry. The two warned against increasing the world’s agricultural footprint by continuing to bulldoze forests, and noted that the global population’s increasing taste for foods high on the food chain will continue to pose a problem.

“There are no silver bullets. It’s going to be complicated,” Richardson said. “We’re going to need every bit of knowledge we have, but it’s also not hopeless. It can be done. I’m absolutely certain of it.”


Babcock: In the 1950s, I used to see signs along corn fields: Hybrid Crop 4850. Later, hybrid crops were labeled in different ways. How do these hybrids differ from genetically modified crops?

Dimick: Hybrids are actually crossbreeding existing varieties of crops, maybe taking old varieties and putting them with new varieties. Genetically modified crops are actually introducing genes from other plants into crops. Actually, the genomics I talked about earlier is the really interesting area now, where you’re sort of decoding the genetics of each seed and you match them much faster — that’s really hybridization coming back again, except at a much faster rate so that we can solve some of these yield challenges.

B: What is driving our desire to eat higher on the food chain?

Richardson: We like hamburgers.

D: We’re omnivores. Meat is tasty, right? How many of you like a nice steak?

R: It’s a difficult thing, because as populations move into the middle class, what the demographers tell us is that the number of children start to go down. So, moving people up the economic chain is a great break on population growth. On the other hand, we have this countervailing thing that yeah, we all want better food. We want better food for our children, we want to eat better, we want to enjoy the spoils of our luxuries, and that seems pretty universal.

B: How do you define “better food?” This person wants to know what you eat on a daily basis.

R: Oh, come on. Now you got us. Dennis eats better than I do.

D: I eat lots of lovely Greek salads, thanks to my lovely wife Kim. It’s very healthy, a Mediterranean diet. I can’t say that I don’t enjoy a little grilled this or that, a little piece of chicken, but you know, I’m eating much healthier than I used to.

B: This person is questioning something you said about per-acre production, surprised that the non-industrialized hand-grown agriculture might produce more per acre.

R: The example I used was a very fertile area in Bangladesh and an area of South Dakota where, if you don’t grow wheat, you probably don’t grow anything. And you grow one crop per year, and it’s good that we have wheat because we probably couldn’t grow anything else there productively, or economically, in our economic system. So those farmers there are growing three, sometimes four crops per acre. Every square inch is planted. There are ponds over here, there are tomatoes growing on the banks of the ponds, everything is being used, which you can do when you have labor. The other piece of that explanation is in the Midwest, and particularly where we’re growing corn, is it’s not food. That’s what’s going on. We’re growing crops, but they aren’t food. Either 40 percent of it’s going for ethanol, another 35 percent or so is going for cattle feed — which is about an eight to one conversion ratio of pounds in to pounds out — and then the rest of it is going into corn syrup and some of those other things. So the actual output of food per acre in the Midwest is very weak compared to India and China. Those places really grow a lot of food per acre.

B: What would be the impact if China could become a more abundant producer of food?

R: They’re already the most abundant producer of food.

D: They’re a huge producer of food. I think the bigger question that we all need to answer is what we’re using the food for. Are we growing food for people, or are we using our landscapes for feeding animals, or are we using our landscapes for energy? Those questions are all on the table.

R: But, fundamentally, I just want to say one thing. China is already by far the largest producer of food in the world, even in wheat. You know, I come from Kansas. We grow wheat. We think we’re good. But they grow two and half times as much wheat as the United States grows. It’s really quite astounding.

B: Will you say more about the effect on soil health and structure of mechanized monocrop farming?

D: Sure. I think it’s important to understand that farmers are acutely aware that if they destroy the soil they rely on they will be out of business. And if you do look across large scale landscapes in the American Midwest, it’s already a radical move away from what’s called moldboard plows — from plowing landscapes — toward what’s called conservation tillage, keeping the soils in place. But there’s actually even a move further to try and re-inhabit some of the crop rotations, conservation reserve programs. I mean if you keep tilling your land every year, inevitably some of that soil ends up in the Mississippi, and that’s why we read about the hypoxic zones and the dead zones in many river valleys.

R: I think I can be convinced by the argument that monoculture farming is essentially soil mining, to put it simply.

B: What impact would safe, sustainable worldwide energy have on food production?

D: Well, safe sustainable energy — that is actually one of the big questions. Currently, our national energy policy is to dig up fossilized remains of 4 million year old plants and animals and light them on fire. We can do better. And so, the question is: can we scale up wind, can we scale up solar? I think the bio-energy thing has to be reigned in until we can find ways to produce biofuels that aren’t also competing with the acres we need to grow food.

B: What’s the best single thing Congress could do to improve agriculture in the U.S.? What can we do to encourage our legislators to improve our domestic food production?

D: I would say at this point, one of the most significant things would be to improve funding for public agricultural research.

R: Yeah. Research and extension, and research and extension overseas as well.

D: Right, replicate the model of the extension service here and do it in other countries.

B: One person refers to the population explosion. Is it really an explosion, and if so, what can we do, humanity, to stop it?

D: Well, we spoke to that earlier. I think, surprisingly, if you drill down into demographics globally what you see is in developed countries, developing countries, the fertility rates are dropping dramatically, and only in the countries that actually have the least income, they have the largest families. And they are actually the countries that use the least natural resources. There’s a paradox that goes on in the world — that, like, as your fertility rates go down, your families grow smaller and your population levels off. You go through what’s called demographic transition. Surprise, surprise, your per capita consumption of natural resources goes up.

R: I think the most encouraged silver bullet solution I’ve heard about population was educate young women.

Dimick: Educate young women, yeah.

B: Educate the women.  And you folks know that’s how Chautauqua got started.

B: How can we defeat the propaganda of the climate change deniers? This person has an opinion.

D: Well, you just keep explaining what the science shows. And there are multiple independent lines of evidence, from melting Arctic ice caps to changing growing seasons, to changes in the behavior of rain and snow. And it’s like, at some point people are going to have to pay attention.

R: I think one of the simplest explanations I’ve seen: We have a hardware dealer down the street, Maurice. And Maurice I don’t think believes in climate change. But every year he does order less salt for the sidewalks. So he actually believes.

B: And here’s the other side of that question, another person with an opinion. Isn’t the idea that beef takes so much water — isn’t that a false conclusion because water is a closed system and returns to the environment?

D: That beef does?

B: No, that water is a closed system.

R: In other words, it recycles and we get it back?

B: That’s the point of view of this questioner.

D: For beef? For beef, so, if it takes eight pounds of grain to grow a pound of beef, versus a pound of wheat to grow a loaf of bread, you have a geometric increase on demands for water, for soil, for energy, for fertilizer, it’s not just water, it’s all the other resources that go into producing a pound of meat.

R: It is another question though, that yes, you have the same amount of total water on the planet, but the question of what is its quality and where do you have it, is a pretty important one.

B: And that’s another question about the future of potable water.

D: I think that’s an interesting question right now beyond agriculture. There’s a very interesting tension point emerging right now about the nexus between food, water, and energy. And we see a huge push in certain parts of our nation to use hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. It’s a very water intensive process, and if we are in very water scarce regions like the Texas panhandle, is that what our best use of water is?

B: Have you looked at the economics of corporate farming and smaller, local, vibrant communities?

D: I think the question is not one of either/or. It’s a question of meeting both smaller local agriculture and larger scale farming. As we say in our own story, we need all choices on the table to help solve this problem.

—Transcribed by Cortney Linnecke

There is one comment

  1. Dennis Dimick (@ddimick)

    Thank so much to all of you for your kind hospitality and your full and complete coverage of National Geographic’s efforts at Chautauqua last week. It was a great pleasure to be there with you.

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