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Spring 2012
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Assessing the Challenges of Feeding 9 Billion

By Krisy Gashler

Jon Miller

Jon Miller

The drought that began in East Africa last summer devastated crops and livestock across Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, but it was only in Somalia that drought led to famine, starvation, and mass exodus.

That’s because feeding people isn’t just about growing food, concludes Ithacan Jon Miller, a journalist and executive producer of a year-long multimedia project for American Public Media’s Marketplace and PBS NEWSHOUR. Called “Food for 9 Billion,” the series explores the social, technical, and environmental factors that contribute to food security or instability—for 7 billion of us now, and an estimated 9 billion by 2050.

Researchers and institutions across the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are providing logistical and intellectual support for the project, which will include 12 radio features on Marketplace, eight television reports on PBS NEWSHOUR, an interactive website, and educational materials.

“Our working hypothesis is that to feed the world in 2050, millions of people will have to be involved, and that the answers won’t be quick fixes, but engaged people,” Miller said.

Among the first engaged in Miller’s cause were Transnational Learning and the David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

Supported by a National Science Foundation grant to Professor Susan McCouch of the Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics, the Transnational Learning group designed and programmed an interactive world food map and world food timeline. Much of the research was provided by students sponsored and supervised by Professor Chris Barrett at the Atkinson Center.

The map includes a wide range of data: from poverty and malnutrition rates to irrigation and fertilizer use, Miller said. The timeline tracks important advances (or setbacks) in food production, population, and health and nutrition, he said.

These interactive materials will provide dual use: as a supplement to the media project and as part of new high school curriculum materials being developed by education specialist Ellie Rice and the Transnational Learning group under McCouch’s NSF grant, he said.

Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development has also provided “intellectual backstopping” through its invaluable weekly seminars, and by hosting a roundtable discussion for journalists working on the project in 2010, Miller said. The Atkinson Center supported that meeting with a travel grant.

Other partners are Homelands Productions, a nonprofit media group that Miller directs, and the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting.

Miller said he hopes the project will move the discussion beyond the polarizing trap of “GMO versus organic, small-scale versus large-scale,” and instead provide a more nuanced picture of what’s needed to feed 9 billion people.

“Our hope is to reach as many ordinary people as we can with a sense of the complexity of the challenge, and also a sense that they might make a difference,” Miller said. “So it’s not a question of waiting for things to happen, but helping make things happen.”