Old or New? Directed by Ernesto Cabello. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2012. 29 minutes.

Food or Fuel? Directed by Christine Kinyanjui. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2012. 29 minutes.

Big or Small? Directed by Alex Gabbay. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2012. 29 minutes.

Reviewed by Anneke Geyzen

How can we ensure that the nine billion people who will make up the world population by 2050 will be fed safely, fairly, and well? The three films under review here address this question from different perspectives and different geographical contexts, looking at past practices, land use, and farm size in Peru, Kenya, and Nebraska (United States) respectively. Overall, these films contribute to the ongoing debate on whether future food security lies in small-scale farming and biodiversity or industrial agriculture and innovation.

The first film (Old or New?) takes us to Peru and investigates if a revival of so-called ancient agriculture and crops can ensure food security. In a number of interviews with Peruvian chefs, we learn about the revolution in gastronomy that is taking place in Peru and its capital Lima. The chefs celebrate what they describe as forgotten crops and believe that the future of our food lies in the preservation of biodiversity. According to them, we should not turn to genetic modification to secure enough food for the growing population but look at the past with its small-scale agriculture and organic farming instead. Scholars and scientists, however, state that although this model has its benefit, it is not the Holy Grail that will ensure global food security. They insist on the continued use of high-input agriculture on the one hand and agro-ecological approaches on the other. As a historian, I regret the rather taken-for-granted use of concepts such as ancient agriculture and forgotten crops, because they reveal a Western approach that leaves the question to whom these practices and products are ancient and forgotten unnoticed.

In Food or Fuel? Kenyan farmer Moses delves into the controversial debate on the use of land for food or biofuels. He protests against the fact that, globally, corn and sugarcane are processed into ethanol to solve energy problems, and he reflects on why his government urges him to grow crops for fuel while so many people in Africa are starving. Moses then conducts research on the pros and cons of growing crops for biofuels, which leads him to the possibilities of the inedible jatropha plant. Jatropha grows on marginal lands that are not suited for food crops, enabling farmers who are suffering from droughts to turn their fickle subsistence agriculture into more lucrative biofuel agriculture. The reorientation would provide them with the opportunity to diversify their income and depend less on unprofitable agricultural activities. Although Moses cannot be convinced, interviews with representatives from biofuel companies and African farmers show that the debate does not have to be controversial. What I find most interesting in the film is that jatropha advocates plead for intercropping, allowing farmers to grow crops for food on their most arable lands and jatropha for fuel on their arid patches. Granted, the conclusion drawn in the film is a rather utopian one and does not really consider the interests of big companies who might only see big bucks in jatropha harvests.

Lastly, Big or Small? juxtaposes big industrial agriculture and small-scale farming in Nebraska. Through the eyes of farmer and investigative journalist Roy Meyer on the one hand and the big agriculture (big ag) lobby on the other, the film explores if small farmers are able to feed the world population. Roy states that in his production niche, delivering tasteful, nutritious, and ecologically sustainable produce, increasingly struggles to compete with the ever-growing pressure of big companies that buy up small farms and take over the arable land. Big ag, in turn, claims to produce large amounts of food for large numbers of people at an affordable price, even though government regulations make everyday production management all the more difficult. Scholars and scientists finally assert that the future of agriculture most probably lies in agro-ecology, which combines small-scale farming with new technologies and as such provides localized solutions to globalized problems of food security and population growth. A significant challenge, however, lies in changing farmers’ mindset. A medium-sized farmer exemplifies this perfectly, when he explains that he had to learn how to farm again and change the way he interacts with the land. From my perspective, another and maybe even bigger obstacle deals with rendering the agro-ecological food affordable for low- or no-income families.

I argue that these three films provide a more or less nuanced contribution to the debate on future food security and offer intriguing material for personal or collective reflection. I do, however, miss a historical dimension. Warren Belasco has shown that this debate is not a recent one but has surfaced time and again since at least the eighteenth century.1 Strikingly, solutions to the problem of population growth on the one hand and food production on the other can historically be divided into three camps: first of all, Malthusians who believed population growth inhibited progress and had to be brought to a halt; second, the vision invested in innovation and technology to produce more food for more people; and third, the so-called counterculture that advocated less invasive ways of eating, such as vegetarianism. It is worth comparing the contemporary dialogues presented in the “Future Food” series with the historical data and ideologies in order to better contextualize present-day visions and break through the deadlock that often characterizes them.

Furthermore, I argue that the issues raised in the films focus too much on food production and not enough on food distribution and waste. Should we produce more food for a growing population, or should we find more efficient ways to distribute food and avoid waste? Research has shown that large amounts of perfectly edible food are wasted even before they reach the consumer.2 How do we justify that hunger-struck Kenya produces green beans for affluent Europe and that almost half of the harvest is lost before it reaches European supermarkets?3 Would localized food chains solve this problem and overcome hunger in Kenya?4 Or—as one of the last scenes in the film on big and small ag shows—why does Roy have to put together food parcels for poor families in an American state that produces large amounts of so-called affordable food? The question of food distribution also brings me to the issue of urbanization. Studies estimate that by 2050 two thirds of the world population will live in cities.5 If agro-ecology will produce enough food for nine billion people, will there be a system in place that distributes the production to the urban population?

Finally, the films could have focused more on the role of consumers in the future of our food. Big or Small? discusses a change in mindset on the part of the farmer, but I am convinced that this change should be triggered in consumers as well. Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food raises several interesting questions in this regard.6 If we want a better food system, from farm to fork, are we willing to accept the effects? Are we willing to pay more for organically grown food, to eat locally, and hence to renounce the globalized food assortment we have access to today? And what about low- or no-income families? How do we close the gap between income and access to food? What is the holistic answer to these questions?

1 Warren Belasco, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

2 Tristram Stuart, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009).

3 Edd Colbert, “Rejected: Almost Half of Food Grown in Kenya for Europe Is Wasted,” Food Tank, October 9, 2015.

4 For research on food chains see Warren Belasco and Roger Horowitz, eds., Food Chains: From Farmyard to Shopping Cart (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

5 Department of Economic and Social Affairs, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision (New York: United Nations, 2014).

6 Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (New York: Penguin, 2008).

Anneke Geyzen obtained an MA in history from Vrije Universiteit Brussel with a thesis on street trade in nineteenth-century Brussels. In 2008, she obtained an Advanced MA degree in European Urban Cultures from Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Universiteit van Tilburg, Manchester Metropolitan University, and University of Arts and Design Helsinki, investigating social mix policy in a European urban context. In November 2013, she earned a PhD in history summa cum laude at Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Her dissertation scrutinized the relationship between heritagization and identification processes in Flanders after World War II by means of a historical gastrolinguistic analysis. Anneke Geyzen currently works at New York University as Postdoctoral Research Associate. Her research project develops a long-term analysis of representations of street food vendors in New York City (1898 - 1989).