Growing Pains: Transforming Global Food and Agriculture
About the Episode
How do we nourish the population, and at the same time preserve, protect, and restore the planet from the very actions of nourishing us and the toll that agriculture takes? In this episode of Youth in Agriculture: Transforming Local Food Systems, David Yacobi and Roger Thurow discuss this question and how youth engagement can be a potential solution.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Natalie Burdsall: INTRO: Hello and welcome to the limited podcast series “Youth in Agriculture: Transforming Local Food Systems,” produced by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs' Center on Global Food and Agriculture. Today, we will be listening in on a conversation between David Yaacobi, an 18-year-old farmer in Jerusalem, and Roger Thurow, a Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.]
David Yacobi: So, as you know already, I'm David and I'm 18 years old, and I got started in Kaima, which is the farm that I work in, about two years ago and this is actually the place that I started thinking about food and agriculture. I wasn't involved in that earlier and I got really into it here and I'm really interested, and I learned a lot about everything that there is to learn about vegetables, at least from this small area that I live in. Yeah, really want to continue doing this sort of work in the future if I'll be able to. I'm going to end my work here in the end of the close school year. And now I need to figure out how I continue to do the things that I learned I love here in other places. So, it's kind of a big step.
Roger Thurow: Well, it sounds that way but you're at least... yeah you started. You're figuring out where your passions are and what interests you and what moves you. So that's... so that's great. Yeah, just a little bit about myself. Yeah, I'm far older than you. You gave us your age, so I'll say I'm 66, just turned 66 and, yeah, I'm beginning to forget more things than I think I learned. So, that’s age. But I was a reporter with the Wall Street Journal for 30 years, 20 of them as a foreign correspondent based mainly in Europe and Africa, and particularly South Africa. And then traveled... traveled widely in my in my reporting throughout Africa, parts of Asia. Have never been to where you are, or that much in the Middle East. Have been to the Emirates couple times and reporting stories—Egypt, North Africa... And I'm with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Have been there for the past... gee, since about 2010. So, yeah, the last 12, 13 years or so. And so there I'm basically continuing my journalism. But it's in long, long form journalism—writing books, being able to spend time with the people that I'm writing about in the communities. Hopefully, faithfully, you know, writing about their perspectives and their lives. And where they're caught up in the importance, say, of smallholder farmers, for all of us in the world, the importance of good nutrition, particularly for children and their moms. And so, yeah, the three books that I've written are all about hunger and malnutrition in the 21st century and the awfulness and the obscenity and absurdity that we still have this medieval suffering, in a sense, with this in this 21st century. So, the organization you're with now what is that and what are you doing? Is it mainly a vegetable organization, or does it have to do anything to do with climate change?
David Yacobi: Doesn't really have anything to do with climate change, at least not directly. It's an organic farm mostly for... the primary goal here is to create an environment that can pretty much... people of almost all ages can work and, work in... and collaborate with each other and learn from each other. Like, people here are going from like my age and even younger, like 15, and there are volunteers... the people who work here, who organize the place, like 30 to 40, and there are even volunteers that that they can come here whenever they... whenever they want to and they work, and they can be even 70. Like, the work can be for everyone and the... that this is the main goal that there is an environment that the age doesn't separate the groups and it's more about the knowledge and the work that you can give to the place. It also moves between organic agriculture, which means it also has a lot to do with saving food and not wasting it and using the food, every crop we have is being used to some extent. The good, the good crop is the... is for selling. We sell it to the general area of where we are and the rest of it we use for ourselves or we give away for free for some people who can't afford some meals. Or that this is the also the idea that because this is the organic farm that involves with the community, so we give to the community and we get from the community. If people come here and help us with the work or help us giving us some more fields that we can work... because each year we grow our fields, we can get more land because people help us get it from the from the place that we... what do you say? It's like a little settlement that the fields are belong to several families here and each year we can get more and do more. So, yeah, it's really with the community. So, it also in a way revolves around food.
Roger Thurow: Right. Yeah. No, that sounds really fascinating. Particularly, kind of, the age span that it's young people like yourself and even younger, as you said, and then all the way up to people in their 70s. And what are you learning from each other? What do you think the older folks there in the older generations are able to learn from you and your generation? And then, anything in particular that you're learning from them, or what kind of wisdom do they have from their years?
David Yacobi: Yeah, I think the special thing about it is that you can really learn that you can learn. It's really interesting because when you think about it at first, you can't really think of an option that some young kids can teach any adults something that is, like, they can... maybe they can talk, maybe they can create a conversation, but it won't be as real as it would be with two people that are the same age. So, I think what's special here is because of the environment that we try to create and we managed to create there each and every day it’s something that we have to work on, there is a possibility for people to actually listen and actually also give their minds about some issues and some political issues about agriculture in our areas, or some, just... things that they think about life. I think the young people here are a really good representation of my generation. Each new generation in all of our history actually is being regarded as the less... less something of the previous generation, less smart, less able, less something. And I think it's a real shame because it's really easy to say the young people... even I can think that like I see seven-year-olds now when they're immediately in their phones or being lazy. And even I, being young, can say that. So, it's a real shame that this is how we immediately think about people that are younger from us. So, I think here is a good representation of what we can actually be and be discussing together, because this place really doesn't give you any limits to the things you can discuss and the people you can discuss with. You can learn everything from young people as much as you can know from an older person, just in a in a different way. And I think it's really special.
Roger Thurow: Yeah, that's really fascinating and yeah that there's no limits on what you can... what you can discuss and think that you can learn from each other. I like that—you learn that you can learn. I find out all the time that because at Auburn University here, kind of always surrounded by students and just learn so much from them, particularly their perspective. Do you think you have you know, in dealing with agriculture, organic agriculture... so you see the whole kind of by play then between agriculture in nature, how agriculture benefits from nature and kind of the richness of the soil and all the microorganisms and the soil and everything and from the rain and all the natural elements. But then that agriculture can have quite an impact on the environment and the water and the depleting the soils if the plants aren't adding nutrients and fixing nitrogen and other nutrients into the soils. So, I'm wondering if you and your generation are... if you find kind of any discussions are bringing a more certain urgency to this issue that we've got to do something on this planet so that there's kind of more harmony between agriculture and the environment as opposed to... we see, too, so much in the in the US and with the modern agriculture trying to bend nature to its will, right to dig up all the weeds, so all of a sudden there's no plants, there's no... the weeds and the natural habitat for the pollinators and the insects that are so important. You know, whole policies here are filling in wetlands because it's like, no we got to plant more crops there, as opposed to wow, they're really important for the whole ecosystem. You know, the deforestation that's going on. So, if you see kind of a... kind of a more urgency there, kind of, what discussions you have on that front?
David Yacobi: Yes, definitely, we talk a lot about it. It's also really interesting to think about how agriculture... how different it can look when it's organic agriculture that tries to be as much of a service to nature and to creatures in nature and then the difference between that and the not-so-organic agriculture that happens when you want to grow crops for cows that are being made for meat or something like that, that you need to make it as fast as you can, as much as you can. So, I think we definitely want to create an environment here and we try to do that all the time. We really try to maintain the land. So, sort of wild nature that is surrounding us. So, each field we use is exactly what we need to use, not more. So like now with the new fields that we try to make it, it can look pretty bad at first, that you need to get rid of a lot of natural plants that were there before. But we try to make it as efficient as it can be and not to waste any wildlife and we try to keep a lot of places for like... a lot of animals actually that are in this area can go into our farm and we do everything we can to prevent them from hurting the crop, but they can still get in for if they want shelter or water or we have some... We want it to be as much of a... want to make a connection between nature and the agriculture. And I think what most of the world does today is the opposite because it really creates a separate... like it doesn't feel even remotely close to agriculture anymore because it's basically like a factory, basically a factory for vegetables or for meat or for anything. Like, you grow living things in a way that doesn't suit living things, and it's really a shame that it doesn't. Their last concern, I think, is the rest of the nature that there is. It really is a shame.
Roger Thurow: Right.
David Yacobi: Actually, I wanted to ask you because you are... as I I tried to read some of what I can about you, what you did. So, you were all a journalist and also a writer, and you still are. And I wanted to know what you think, basically... what do you think about this issue? How do you think it started? Because I think it's relatively... it's not new per se, but it is getting alarmingly worse. So, I wanted to know because you’ve been in this field for several years, a lot of years. What did you think happened? Is it just the population or politics or what do you know about it?
Roger Thurow: Yeah, no, great question and thanks for your thoughts on this. This is precisely what I'm writing about now in the next book that I'm trying to finish and then kind of the writing the manuscript stage... did a lot of... finish the reporting on it towards the end of last year when able to travel again, you know after COVID and the restrictions on international travel. And so I'm right in the middle of it and I think the greatest question and the greatest challenge that humanity faces is this collision that we're having, as you say that has been going on. But we see it now hopefully more clearly and as it grows ever near, this collision between these two great imperatives that we have. So how do we both nourish the planet, nourish all of us going forward? And our planet with an ever-increasing population and ever more prosperous population, so hurray for that, many more people moving into the middle class. But that puts a greater strain on the global food chain because obviously people have more money, particularly those coming out of the extreme poverty. They spend it on food and so diets change, so more of a pressure on the global food chain. So, how do we nourish the planet going forward with these pressures, and at the same time preserve, protect, restore the planet from the very actions of nourishing us and feeding us and a toll that agriculture takes on the planet?
So that's what I'm what I'm looking at, and you see this in places in Africa, in Ethiopia. When I first was an Ethiopia in 2003 during of the first hunger crisis or famine of the 21st century—and I was still with the Wall Street Journal then—there were about maybe 70, 73 million people in Ethiopia. Now it's kind of up to 120 million, right, or 110. So, like, in this time, I mean it's an increase in, say, 40 million people in less than 20 years. It was like the 14th largest country in the world population-wise. Now it's the 12th, and they figure by 2050 it may be the ninth or tenth largest, populist country in the world and even by 2100 it might be like eighth or seventh or something like that. So, you see this increasing population, the pressures on that, and Africa's the fastest growing continent in terms of population-wise and they run into the problem of horribly degraded lands. It probably has the most degraded lands. You know, depleted soils, the soil runoff, the erosion, the deforestation. And so, what are we going to do about that, right?
And so that's what I'm writing about and some of these efforts to restore the degraded land through, you know, all sorts of conservation efforts, so that farmers had never thought about that because it was growing food, right. And as much as they can to feed their families and then for their income and then you look up, and they all say, “My goodness, we've done this to ourselves.” These farmers, they basically moved them off the land and they said, “You can't farm here anymore. We have to let this restore these forests that basically disappeared because of cutting the trees for all sorts of manners.” But basically, to expand their agriculture and things is one of the main reasons. It's like, how do we bring them back? So you see areas where the forest are back and you look at the photos or just from the time that I was there and it was just terribly scarred and denuded landscapes and nobody able to farm there anymore. You do some terracing to the land and some fencing and vegetation to hold the rainwater, keep it, to restore... all the sudden springs are coming back if the farmers didn't even know were there because the groundwater level has increased because the water is soaking in instead of rushing off. So, you see all this and that's a really great question that I think this is, is kind of the question, the great question of our time, precisely as you asked it, that how do we do both of these things? Because it's so important for us to for our survival and to keep going.
David Yacobi: Right. Yeah, it's really fascinating to know more about it. It's a real shame this is happening. Do you... from your other books, your other research... how did you get into this, into this field in the first place? How did you get interested or when did you start? What got you motivated?
Roger Thurow: Yeah, thank you. I think it comes from certainly my journalism and foreign corresponding and starting to see these issues particularly the more that I was reporting in Africa. Because when you're based in Europe, you're surrounded by everything up there, right. So, you're kind of in the richer parts of the world. And then when you start seeing the human condition... and then you know, it's like what, why have we brought certainly this hunger and malnutrition with this? Because we've had everything since the green revolution and we know agriculture and how to grow food. We grow enough food in the world calorie-wise, if there was equal distribution of that food for everybody, then it's a matter of the nutritional value of it. Because then so many people are suffering from what's called micronutrient deficiency that maybe they're getting the proper calories but they're not getting the nutrients that they that they need for proper growth and particularly cognitive development of the brains of the children which then leads to stunting.
But it goes back to my first time in Ethiopia in 2003. I had been writing about some of these inequalities of global agriculture, why were some farmers in the world so far behind, say particularly in Africa in terms of, in terms of yields—you can see the impact on the environment. And then in Ethiopia there were like 14 million people, one-four, so basically one fifth of the population at the time that were in need of emergency food aid. And so I traveled some with the World Food Programme, some of the other relief organizations that were there with Ethiopian officials to see what was going on. And you know, somebody at the World Food Programme had said to me that, you know, that what you're going to see in these emergency feeding tents... I mean when you, when you really look into the eyes of the of the hungry, you realize nobody should have to be starving of hunger, particularly not now in the 21st century with all the science and communications and everything that we have. Why is this still happening?
I would have like left those emergency feeding tents, kind of written my story as a foreign correspondent and moved on to the next story, next place, where am I going to next? That's the story that stopped me cold, and I knew I had to keep coming back to it and back to it and back to it. Hunger and malnutrition in the 21st century and what's wrong with us, right. And so sometimes editors the Wall Street Journal, they'd say, “So what are you thinking about next?” And I'd say well, now, “There's a story in a different place in Africa or India,” or somewhere kind of also on this theme. And they'd say, “Haven't you written that before? What's new?” And I'd say, “What's new? What's new is that it's so old that it still abides with us.” What's wrong with us? We have to keep writing about this and raising the clamor that, you know, we have to get on top of this.
And, so, it was just through that and then that my journalism evolves and I figured the best way to tell these stories is by spending time in these communities, following people over time. Is there any impact? What difference does it make? Are we listening and paying attention to the smallholder farmers? And the moms and dads of the world, as they wrestle with malnutrition with themselves and with their children?
And so that then is what my journalism has evolved to. You mentioned where one gets the inspiration and passion from. So that then became the passion of my journalism, renewed in the sense that this is what everything I had done before has led me to in my career. And so I kind of say that my mantra as a journalist is to outrage and inspire. So, it's like, hey, people, what's going on? Why do we still have this with this? We should be outraged by this. And as one sees very clearly within your generation, with you and Natalie... what's going on? Why do we have this madness? Is this the kind of world that we're going to be leading someday? We got to fix this. But also the inspiration that no, this can be done again, you know, David, what you're doing. You know, the conversations you're having with everybody, the work that Natalie does at the Chicago Council, it's the inspiration that no, we can do this. And this is one of the things that we know what to do on this issue. It's a matter of the political will and the popular will. You know, we're not going to take this anymore. We're not going to accept this. We're not going to tolerate this terrible want and desperation in our midst.
David Yacobi: Right. Yeah. The thing is, first of all, it's amazing that the work that you did or still do.
Roger Thurow: Thank you.
David Yacobi: It's really, really incredible. But when we do what we do here, where I work, at Kaima, what I find problematic is that even though I think what we do here is great and it can really help if more people in around the world did the same and tried to make agriculture as a community doing it together as much of a possibility that is in some places it really isn't. But some other places it's the best, the best possibility. But like in Israel, here we have a problem that the government really puts most of our efforts on importing most of our vegetables. And it's more cheap that way. It's less, obviously not organic, obviously not good for the community, and it's the worst possible outcome for us, the farmers, not only us, because we're only a small farm, but all of the farmers in Israel. A lot of them are organics, a lot of organic farms are working in all parts of Israel. And it's really, it's a real big trouble that you can't even like the political issues... you can't really get rid of them. Even if you're doing all the right things, there are still bigger forces that are forcing you into the same path. If you want to live, if you want to make a living, if a farmer wants to make a living, they need to play by the rules, and the rules are not great. So, I wonder if you think that this can change, or maybe we should change how we see the problem? Maybe we should change how we see the organic agriculture process. Maybe we should try to play on both sides. It's an issue, that's the point. So, I wondered if you have any insight on that?
Roger Thurow: Yeah. And I think this understanding of one, the issue that faces us in this clash of these two imperatives that we were talking about, that they're relentless, we have to deal with these things. And so how best to deal with that, and that there's all sorts of solutions out there. So, what you guys are doing on the organic front, that's great and that should be expanded as much as possible. But then also realizing that, yeah, well in some parts of the world maybe that's not as possible. You know the buy-ins of agriculture production and what modern agriculture can provide, but how do they do that in harmony with the nature and stop trying to reduce the total of ag. I mean, agriculture and land use activities already contribute about a third of the greenhouse gas emissions in the world. It's basically the same as the same levels of industry and transportation, you know, kind of mining. And, so, it's like no, agriculture has to be responsible then for this and do what it can to limit its footprint on the world, even though that footprint is enormous because it is working with the soils and 70 percent of the water on earth goes to agriculture. And to kind of be more aware of that and responsible for that, that all these kind of solutions need to come together and then also that agriculture and the environment. So in conservationist, the need to see each other as allies and to achieve the goals of each—both agriculture, so nourishing us, and the conservation and environmentalists, to preserve the planet and kind of restore the toll that that agriculture takes on the planet. They need each other to be as successful as possible. So instead of being enemies or hostile towards each other, agriculture and environment need to come together.
Natalie Burdsall: I want to thank you both, David and Roger, for providing your thoughts and insights on youth engagement in global food and agriculture, from the benefits of organic farming to inter-generational collaboration and learning.
[Natalie Burdsall: OUTRO: And thank you for tuning in for this episode of “Youth in Agriculture: Transforming Local Food Systems.” As a reminder, the opinions you heard belong to the people who express them, and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. This episode is produced and edited by me, Natalie Burdsall. Thank you for listening—we’ll see you again next week.