By Chris Holman, NFU Member

In mid-January, I flew to Berlin to attend the annual Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA), this year entitled “Agriculture and Water – The Key to Feeding the World.” While there, I represented National Farmers Union (NFU) and the World Farmers’ Organisation (WFO), and served as the North American Representative in a delegation of young farmers sent from around the world to participate in the forum. The group was asked to contribute their own vision and ideas to the larger conversation on water and its role in both food security and in the future of food and agriculture.

A word to the wise –  if you find yourself flying across the Atlantic from the States, make sure you have a solid plan for dealing with jet lag upon arrival.  It is a formidable foe. Luckily for me, my hotel room wasn’t ready when I arrived at 8am that Tuesday morning, so instead of submitting to my instinct to immediately take a nap, I left my bags and set out to walk around the city and see what there was to see.

The East Side Gallery, a long stretch of the Berlin Wall that now serves as an art gallery.

Berlin is a large city with a planned footprint that far exceeds its current population of about 3 million people.  There is ample green space, numerous parks, and a deep history that is reflected in many monuments that are found all over the city. But the city is perhaps most infamous for the Berlin Wall, as well as its role in the transition between World War II and the Cold War.  As you may know, when the Wall fell,  Germany changed in many ways.  Berlin still reflects its history of being split between Cold War lines, and visitors can see the remnants of this division in everything – from the architecture, to the lengths of the Berlin Wall that are still intact,  to the type of sidewalk stones that were used on each side.

One of the most noticeable, lasting effects that has come from joining East and West Berlin is how affordable it is to live, eat, and drink in such a large, metropolitan city.  Berlin made a conscious effort during the unification process to ensure its citizens and visitors would not experience the prohibitive costs of so many other western cities. Food is inexpensive, drink is plentiful and priced to pour, and apartments around the city are available at prices that encourage people to stay. This segues into why coming to Berlin and attending the GFFA was so important this year, and will remain important as the agricultural community moves forward and grapples with a future of daunting environmental, economic, and social forces.

In his foreword on the GFFA website, Christian Schmidt, the German Minister of Food and Agriculture, writes:

“Agriculture faces the task of producing more food with less water. It must find ways of managing the important resource of water more efficiently and more sustainably. And it must at the same time become more resilient in order to be able to cope with droughts and floods. This requires concerted efforts! Industry, academia, civil society and political decision-makers must work together to develop solutions for ensuring agriculture’s access to water. Only in this way will agriculture be able to continue to meet its role as the provider of the global population.”

Berlin’s International Green Week, the farm trade show that coincides with the GFFA and draws over half of a million people per year.

This is not an unfamiliar argument, though the way it is presented here is definitely different from how we tend to see it in the States.  For one, the GFFA assembles stakeholders to discuss the various aspects of an issue, learn from one another, and then synthesize the gathered insights and information into a policy communiqué that can be taken home and used to guide policymaking and better resolve unique issues. This proactive approach is one that we can learn from.  When there are many stakeholders with their own perspective on an issue, we tend to shy away from collaboration and cooperation.  Instead, our efforts maintain the blind spots inevitable with tunnel vision, and often waste precious time and resources. Creating the opportunity for forums like the GFFA here at home will be key to generating and implementing long-term solutions for farmers and the agricultural sector at large.

One way that you can tell how serious they take the forum is by who is in attendance.  This was the first year, for instance, that they invited a group of young farmers to participate.  We represented the farmers who will be affected by the decisions being made across the globe today. Rather than treat our presence as a token nod to a generation that rarely has a meaningful seat at the table, the gathered ministers and others in attendance went out of their way to engage us as individuals, as a group, and also as a voice in their policy communiqué.  Our work was first presented to the 83 ministers in attendance. They then incorporated it into their own work, and we watched and listened as, one after another, the ministers noted the value of our contribution and suggested ways in which they and everyone else could do better by their young farmers by following our advice.

This was followed by the high level panels, which may sound vague and cryptic, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. This was demonstrated by the high level “International Business” panel participants: Dr. Ashok Gulati of Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations; Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director United Nations World Food Program; Han Chanfu, the Minister of Agriculture of the People’s Republic of China; Thomas Bock, member of the CLAAS Executive Board; and Rodger Voorhies, Managing Director of the Gates Foundation.  I watched in awe as the facilitator took the panel through a series of incredibly complex and difficult topics, somehow without causing an international incident.  Hearing the Chinese perspective on water and agriculture was very interesting, and it was exciting to be able to understand Chinese through the simultaneous translation, offered in multiple languages, through headphones that were available for every meeting.

The delegation of young farmers who participated in GFFA. NFU’s Chris Holman is third from right.

We attended many other academic panels during the week.  I chose to attend the Blue Planet Water Dialogue panel one day, and I came away with a variety of new perspectives on unique challenges to water use and re-use.  The opening keynote, delivered by Professor Jan Lundqvist, who is the Senior Scientific Advisor at the Stockholm International Water Institute, made my mind explode with epiphany when he spoke to the issue of food waste.  Though I’ve heard about the importance of addressing this issue, I had never thought about how overeating is a form of food waste.  If you only need so many calories to survive and thrive, is it wasteful if you eat double that amount when those calories could be utilized elsewhere?  Is the agricultural economy generating so many calories that it enables this type of food waste in certain populations while simultaneously creating and maintaining food scarcity in other populations?  This is when my own thinking began to shift at the forum.  We often approach these issues from a purely economic perspective, but here we were, discussing aspects of agriculture that were fundamentally based in ethics.

Giovanni Munoz was a panelist in the following session, and his perspective came from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).  What stood out to me from his presentation was that study after study, FAO found that introducing water conservation technology on its own led to more water use, not less.  This, suffice it to say, was completely counter-intuitive to everyone in the room. He clarified later that it wasn’t the technology itself that led to this situation, but the absence of an entire package of information, know-how, training, funding, cooperation, and technology that has to be brought to bear in order for the technology’s benefits to be fully realized.  It is not a panacea on its own, and it’s important to keep that in mind as improved technology continues to make inroads into U.S. agriculture.

Then there was the presentation by Lena Horlemann, a researcher at Inter 3 Institute for Resource Management, which struck a somber tone. The harsh reality is that bad water policy is leading to the misuse, overuse, and exhaustion of water resources.  In her presentation, she focused on Iran, and the particular valley she spoke about reminded me of California’s water crisis and its reliance upon a healthy snowpack in the mountains.  Of course, with changes in global climate patterns, the confidence we have in this resource is likely misguided.  Whether we are discussing Iran, California, or anywhere else that is similarly reliant upon the weather to provide water for agriculture, it is abundantly clear that many places are simply running out of water.

These stories are the canaries in the coal mine when it comes to water as a resource, and if we do not acknowledge the parallels between their plight and our own, we will undoubtedly find ourselves in the same dire situation. Again, this is where our thinking is going to have to go beyond the economic aspects of agriculture. Our efforts moving forward must incorporate an ethical foundation that places a more nuanced value upon food, farmers, water, fertilizers, and other aspects of the global food systems. Without an equal consideration for ethics on equal footing with profit, we will likely condemn a lot of humanity to a slow, miserable, hungry, thirsty death.  That may sound hyperbolic to many of you reading this, but we are already unsuccessful at feeding the world, despite the fact that agricultural growth has outpaced the gloomy population forecasts that came from the many authors who used Malthus’ arguments to present an unsustainable future in the late 1960s.  Nearly sixty years later, we are once again looking ahead with serious questions about sustainability, but this time it feels a bit different.

Chris Holman is the owner-operator at Nami Moon Farms. He is also a lifetime member of Wisconsin Farmers Union.

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