Interview with Prof. Dr. Gunther Hirschfelder

“We must not undemocratize food issues”


World Food Day has been held on October 16 since 1979 to bring attention to the world food situation. After continually falling for a decade, global hunger figures have been on the rise again for a few years. In 2018, according to the United Nations 822 million people went hungry and 2 billion were malnourished. In our interview, Regensburg’s renowned cultural scientist Prof. Dr. Gunther Hirschfelder explains the global situation, gives solutions, and calls for a democratic and science-based dialog on key food issues.

Professor Hirschfelder, what is the significance of food for the development of humankind?
Securing and improving the food situation is the deciding factor in our development, both in terms of biology and society. We need to realize that humanity was not a successful species for a long time. Things did not change until we moved from being hunters and gatherers to a stationary agricultural lifestyle and made better use of natural resources. Over millennia, humans developed more and more efficient technical equipment and learned they could substantially increase yields using fertilizer, pesticides and smart cultivation methods.

However, we have not solved global food problems yet.
We currently have over 800 million people going hungry on this planet. In fact, this figure has gone up again in recent years. We are still facing major challenges in Africa, in particular. For instance, one of the few problems acknowledged there is “land grabbing,” i.e. when large foreign consortiums acquire fertile agricultural areas. This has a profound impact on the population’s food supply in countries like Ethiopia, Zambia, and Madagascar as well as the Inner Niger Delta. This is compounded of course by typical problems like climatic conditions, insufficient financial resources, and a low level of education among many farmers.

What are the challenges outside of Africa?
Difficult food situations are also an issue in places we may not even consider anymore. We generally think of nations like India or China as booming countries. In doing so, it is easy to overlook the fact that there is also a fierce struggle over secure food in these regions.

Difficult food situations are also an issue in places we may not even consider anymore.

Michael Devoy

Prof. Dr. Gunther Hirschfelder

University of Regensburg

Of the over 1.3 billion people in India, more than 700 million in rural areas are still living with major poverty issues. An inadequate food supply is often the result of poorly organized food trade, ineffective agricultural structures, and – particularly in the south – developing water shortages. We have to presume that the major issue of food in India is by no means resolved. On top of this, the country is faced with growing population pressure and increasing demand for resources and land. The same applies for its neighbor Pakistan, as well as China, to some extent. The basis for food security is at least jeopardized in these countries. If extreme weather events, meat consumption, and resource waste continue to rise, it will be nearly impossible to close the food gaps over the long term. This can be gut-wrenching for scientists.

Despite the problems you describe, some regions in Asia and Africa are shifting from managing shortages to surplus mode and are further exacerbating the situation through rising meat consumption.
People naturally require protein. This applies to us as individuals, but also to entire societies. In places where undersupply of protein has long been prevalent, people are now starting to consume as much as possible. We see it in Africa’s emerging countries, such as Kenya and Botswana. However, we cannot go to other countries with rising meat consumption and say: “You may still have a shortage of protein, but be mindful of climate change in your consumption of meat.” Consuming as much meat as possible also has important cultural value in such societies.

Let’s talk about solutions. How can the global food situation be improved?
Research needs to provide drought- and salt-resistant seed varieties of wheat, for instance. We need the right technology for this. What we also need, though, is an open discussion within society. And we need to have this discussion scientifically. It cannot be charged with ideologies or national interest of any kind, as is far too often the case nowadays. That would be the first step. I think the second would be to have new instruments to organize the world’s food fairly and equitably. Europe, North America, and China need to step in here. Third, I see incredible opportunities in digitalization. We have large regions of the world where the educational system for farming is woefully underdeveloped. If we bring these into the age of mobile communication and the internet as quickly as possible, we have a good chance of advancing innovation in farming and agricultural organization. And lastly, we need to reconcile the ecology and economics of farming.

We need an entire wave of innovations for 21st century farming.

Particularly in places with large-scale farming operations, we need to design farming to work well in terms of ecology. At the same time, we need to obtain high yields on the fertile land. So overall, we need an entire wave of innovations for 21st century farming.

What should the social debate over food be like?
Objective and respectful. Based on the traditional democratic practices. If you think about the debates over climate and the environment, these discussions are characterized by what Niklas Luhmann once described as Aufregungsschäden, i.e. damage through agitation. We concentrate too much on conflict: car drivers versus people who don't drive, meat eaters versus vegetarians. Instead, we need to consider how the concepts of freedom and responsible action tie into each other and how we can reconcile them. Food issues cannot be undemocratized. One of the accomplishments of the 20th century, however, was overcoming hunger and reaching a consensus that everyone should be provided with sufficient food regardless of income. This must not be challenged. Essentially, we need to make this principle mandatory around the world.

Hasn't our conversation about food in the developed countries completely excluded global factors for some time now?
To an extent, yes. Food is currently being discussed in the developed countries from the perspective of lifestyles. Right now, Europeans and North Americans are in an exceptional situation in historical terms. People have always been frustrated that their plates were too empty. Our generation is the first in these regions to deal with them being too full. When it comes to food issues, many people are thus focusing on optimizing their own health and physique. Globally speaking, however, the pivotal factor for the 21st century will not be what lifestyle we follow.

What problems does such a narrow mindset pose for farmers?
Farmers are trapped! They can’t readily meet the requirements placed on them. Usually, they inherited their farms and are trying to provide people with food based on their knowledge and the laws in place. They are increasingly seeing themselves marginalized in this role.

Farmers are trapped! They can’t readily meet the requirements placed on them.

We fail to recognize that a successful farmer needs to use an economic approach for their land or their livestock. For economic reasons, they cannot simply be short-sighted in pursuing the social demands of the day. This is completely separate from the fact that they cannot feed the world today using exclusively organic farming practices. Many farmers find it almost impossible to balance ecology and economics on their own. This is where we need policy to create a socially acceptable and economically viable framework for global food issues based on science and research.

Thank you for joining us in this discussion.