Now Serving 9 Billion video

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Not too long ago, a few of us participated in the twitterpated webcast put on by Croplife, BIO and CAST called Now Serving 9 Billion: Global Dialogue on Meeting Food Needs for the Next Generation. We watched a live webcast, sent in questions, and followed the conversation in twitter with the hashtag #agcast. It was a pretty fun two hours because not only were people discussing the webcast real-time, the discussion was leaking into the webcast itself in the form of comments and questions being read from it. Very cool and 2.0-ish. Alex Rinkus from Croplife has provided a link to the entire webcast on Vimeo, feel free to watch the whole thing. I will make a few several comments after the fold.

The whole affair probably took a lot of planning, and the integration of twitter comments into the video webpage was impressive. This is the first time I have seen that kind of detail. It is especially good because even people who don’t twitter can see the discussion unfolding. The display of twitter comments behind the speakers was also a nice touch, however it was difficult to read them in the video – it was probably more for the physical audience at the event. But seeing as how Anastasia had two of her ‘tweets’ read aloud on the webcast, making both Frank and me jealous, it

The format got me thinking about how we might be able to do something like that on Biofortified. As a community (!) of people around the world, it would be exceedingly difficult to get a lot of people in one place – but if it was done online it could happen. Something to dream about doing someday!

I do have a nitpick about some of the questions asked of the panelists – the ‘Youtube’ questions. While participation on facebook and twitter was announced, I was surprised to see video questions included, and it was said on the webcast that they were ‘Youtube’ videos. However, there was no such announcement prior to the event. I received confirmation of this from Alex Rinkus. He said that they solicited questions from partner organizations and some questions were asked by random people on the street who were explained what the panel was about. But putting them on Youtube didn’t work out because the video quality degraded at each step of the way. That’s understandable, but the press release after the event said something different:

Participants were able to ask real-time questions through YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and e-mail.

Pre-recorded questions ≠ Real-time Youtube submissions. I don’t want to overemphasize this point, but I think it would have been better to just call them questions from the street or something. Maybe I just would have liked to send a video question – they had me googling frantically looking for this!

As for the panel discussion, there were a lot of good things talked about. As I have said before, I was already familiar with Nina Fedoroff and Robert Paarlberg. I was particularly impressed with some of Gale Buchanan’s comments and demeanor, and Mark Cantley said some good things about the UK. Calestous Juma added some good perspective on Africa and elsewhere.

I thought that the discussion was good, but I felt that it could have used more diversity of opinions and perspectives. There really weren’t any big disagreements over any particular issue or another. I think the panelists communicated their perspectives well, but it was very ‘on message’ and wasn’t an exploration of differences and confluences. One thing to consider is that if a group of people does not agree fully on everything then when they do agree the power of that agreement is much stronger. This isn’t to say that the panel should have included someone like Jeffrey Smith – that would be absurdly unproductive. And I know how hard it is to plan good discussion panels because I’ve had to do that myself on several occasions. But a wider and richer discussion could have been achieved.

One thing that I certainly liked seeing was the piece on Norman Borlaug that they played at the beginning. Not only do I think more people need to know about Borlaug’s contributions to the world, but it highlights a critical issue ignored in many discussions of the future of agriculture: There are soon going to be several billion more people on this planet and the Green Revolution helped safeguard the lives of just one billion.

Heh, just one billion!

As of 2008, the global population was estimated at 6,692,030,277. (Source: Google) In 2050 we may have 2.3 billion more mouths to feed, and to feed well. We must do this on less land and with less water and to have a lower impact on the environment. We must do this with healthier food and safer food. It must be done amidst climate changes and our diminishing ability to pump more previously-sequestered carbon into the atmosphere – for both peak-oil and greenhouse gas emission reasons. It will take more than 2.3 more Borlaugs, I’m afraid.

There are many people who argue against the need to produce more food. Yes, we can also work to improve equity and food distribution, however, that will not be enough to feed 50% more people. I was once talking to a wheat breeder and he quizzed me on how much wheat stores we had in the U.S. – I guessed a few months worth. The answer he gave me was 11 days. The recent food shortages in the past couple years due to weather has caused the public and the media to realize that although we may feel comfortable (in this country) at the present, that comfort could easily be upset. Any future plan for how to proceed must take these issues into account, and I daresay that we have not yet figured out how to do it.

And so in finality, however you may feel about genetic engineering and other aspects of farming, I think you can agree that the emphasis placed on this future need was not misplaced. We didn’t see many of the twitter-savvy anti-GE folks participating in the discussion during this webcast, but I hope that the magnitude of the world’s needs as communicated by the panel was not lost on them, because it certainly is higher in my consciousness still a couple weeks later.

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Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.