Food & Drink

Lessons from the forefront of the global fight for food security

by Robbie Swinnerton

Contributing Writer

Where does our food come from? Who grows it? What is its impact on the environment? How can we feed the world’s growing population? What effect will global warming have on food security?

These are the big questions, and the answers are not encouraging. By 2050, there will be as many as 10 billion mouths to feed, up from 7.7 billion today. Climate change is fast affecting the land available for cultivation, while food production and the resulting habitat loss is destroying wildlife and biodiversity across the globe. The oceans have been over-fished and polluted. The global food system is the problem, not the solution. And for Japan, which has a self-sufficiency rate of under 40 percent, that spells increasing vulnerability to changes in global food production.

These daunting issues are being discussed in forums across the world. The driving force behind a bold new initiative in Brazil is chef Alex Atala, whose Sao Paulo restaurant, D.O.M., consistently ranks among the best in the world. The chef has long championed alternatives to big agribusiness, speaking up for sustainable farming and the vast possibilities of the edible plants and wildlife of the Amazon basin.

For Atala, doing nothing is not an option. But he also understands there can be no one-size-fits-all solution. That is why he has been instrumental in bringing together leading figures from a range of fields to pool their knowledge and expertise on sustainability and food security.

Called Fruto, from the Portuguese word for “fruit,” the first iteration of this event took place in Sao Paulo in late January, curated by Atala and co-founder Felipe Ribenboim.

Fruto gathered a diverse cast of luminaries including U.S./French marine conservationist Celine Cousteau; Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food Movement; self-styled “gangsta gardener” Ron Finlay, whose guerrilla permaculture farm in Los Angeles has become a rallying point for creating urban food centers; and Brazilian celebrity TV chef Bela Gil, a leading advocate of healthy eating.

Over two days, the presentations ranged from the matter-of-fact to the eye-opening and inspirational. All were live-streamed on YouTube, with simultaneous translations for international audiences.

Among the standout speakers was neuroscientist Suzana Herculano, whose work on the brain illuminates how cooking fueled human evolution and why we are susceptible to overeating to the point of obesity. Swiss-born farmer and researcher Ernest Gotch spoke about his success in recovering land cleared from tropical rainforest and degraded by intensive agricultural production, an approach he calls “syntropic” farming.

Meanwhile, Cousteau presented her work for improving the traceability of seafood, an essential step toward knowing more about the fish we are catching and eating. Awareness of the need for sustainable seafood is slowly growing in Japan, where many stocks have been overfished. She also described practical steps being taken to reduce the unimaginably huge unwanted by-catch — the ocean life that is netted by fishermen and thrown back, usually dead, because it is unsellable.

And former professional surfer Jon Rose introduced Waves for Water, which provides access to clean water by distributing portable water filters. From the start his slogan has been, “Do what you love and help along the way.” It’s a mantra that sums up the spirit of the entire event.

While the primary focus of the first Fruto symposium was Brazil, its agriculture and environment, the issues and implications have a global reach. Japan’s importance to this conversation is expected to be reflected in future years.

A summation of the Fruto forum is posted on its website at: fru.to/en.

Japan’s precarious food supply

Brazil is one of the world’s major breadbaskets: The country is the third biggest exporter of agriculture products, behind the U.S. and the EU, and the world’s largest producer of beef.

Japan, meanwhile, imports more than 60 percent of its food and has one of the lowest rates of self-sufficiency among developed nations.

The connection between Japan and Brazil runs deep. Sao Paulo is home to the largest overseas population of Japanese, an immigrant community that played a major role in developing Brazil’s agriculture sector. But recently, Brazil’s main market for food in Asia has been China, which buys roughly three-quarters of Brazil’s soybean exports. Ever greater demand for Brazilian produce is expected from other Asian countries as populations and spending power mushroom. Competition for produce may force prices up, affecting import-reliant countries such as Japan the most.

What’s more, the growing global demand for meat and for the grain and beans used for animal feed is creating greater environmental strain, especially in the Amazon rainforest, which is being cleared for pasture. The implications of that are global. As chef Alex Atala likes to emphasize, Brazil is the frontline in the battle for the future of farming.

For Japan, this should be a wake-up call for greater self-sufficiency.

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