Panel explores what fair and sustainable future of food will need

· The Pulse

At the conclusion of the Chancellor's Forum on Food for the Future, Sen. Paula Simons asked the assembled experts what they imagine we'll be eating in 50 years. Their answers reflected the diversity of their experiences as well as a common desire for equity and environmental sustainability.

The event, convened by Chancellor Peggy Garritty at the University of Alberta on Nov. 9, assembled Isha Datar, executive director of New Harvest, a nonprofit institute that funds research into cellular agriculture; Alison Sunstrum, founder and CEO of CNSRV-X, which invests in emerging agtech; and three academics from the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences: soil scientist William Shotyk, agricultural economist Ellen Goddard, and beef nutritionist Gleise M. Silva.

"I feel like what we eat in 50 years is completely dependent on the choices that we make now. And if we continue on the path that we've been on so far, I don't know what our choices would be in 50 years," said Datar, referring to the drastic decrease in options that unaddressed climate change will bring. "If we make the right investments into diversifying our food system and creating more resilience, so we're able to bounce back from changes in the supply chain and to really create resilience in a climate-change future ... I think we could have a wide diversity of foods."

Shotyk took the question from the point of view of not only a soil scientist but also a gardener and occasional farmer. Growing our own food within city limits could be part of that diversified future, he suggested.

"When I look around Edmonton, I see a lot of space not being used, and I just think about how much food could be grown in the city," he said, noting that this requires intentional protection of our third-most important natural resource behind oxygen and water. "We take care of the soil, the soil takes care of us."

As an economist who studies consumer preferences, Goddard noted our tendency to want to eat what we have always eaten, although we have become more open-minded towards alternative ways of producing food in light of the supply-chain shocks of the past two years.

"I think for Christmas dinner, we're probably going to eat the same food. I'm just not sure how it's going to be created or where it's going to be created," she said. "But I will lay you odds we will still want to see something that looks like possibly turkey, possibly mashed potatoes and gravy. But it will come from different origins."

Sunstrum and Silva added that whatever our food looks like and wherever it comes from, we need to make sure everyone is fed.

"I really hope that whatever I'm eating, every single person around the world has the same access," Sunstrum said.

Gleise M. Silva and Isha Datar interact on stage while Alison Sunstrum looks on

Gleise M. Silva, the Hays Chair in Beef Production Systems at the University of Alberta, interacts with Isha Datar, executive director of New Harvest, while Alison Sunstrum of CNSRV-X looks on during the Chancellor's Forum on Food for the Future on Nov. 9. (University of Alberta/YouTube)

It's going to take money and creativity to achieve that vision, the panel agreed. Part of that involves funding research at universities. Shotyk recalled sending a letter to 144 newspapers as a grad student, decrying the underfunding of research.

"Here we are 40 years later, and we're actually in the same place," he said, noting that Canada's abundance can be a barrier to the development of the kind of "science culture" he has observed in Switzerland or Germany. "We literally have every possible mineral resource and fossil fuels and agricultural land and water resources. So we don't have to think as much as other people do."

The scale of the challenge requires more than government funding, said Sunstrum, who argued for a healthy ecosystem that includes everything from philanthropy to venture capital to finance the future of food.

"The only way we're going to do things differently is through creative disruption," she said, adding that pension funds should be "investing in the world we want to see," and challenging women, who will control 65% of Canada's wealth by 2030, to activate that capital in the service of feeding the world sustainably.

Breaking down the silos between various disciplines is also necessary, said Datar, who first learned about cellular agriculture as a student at the University of Alberta in 2009 and went on to co-found two startups in that space before shifting her focus to New Harvest.

"The future of cell ag and what I think is the future of most innovation going forward is all going to occur in these gaps, in these little spaces around these artificial categories that we've created around how science works," she said. "This bioeconomy that is coming can be used to create any biological thing. That blurs the lines between food and fuel and fibre and all this kind of stuff."

The Chancellor's Forum is an initiative of the University of Alberta Senate that invites the public to engage with a timely topic. Past topics include artificial intelligence, the opioid crisis, and the 20th anniversary of the Vriend decision.