Former US House member discusses the world’s food supply in annual campus lecture

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UC Berkeley/Courtesy

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Students and members of the public gathered on the UC Berkeley campus on March 13 to learn about how the world’s food supply will have to change to be able to support the 9 billion people projected to populate the planet in 2050.

Former U.S. representative Douglas Bereuter gave the campus’s annual Matsui Lecture, titled “Can the World Feed 9 Billion People,” to an overflow audience. Bereuter, who represented his district in Nebraska from 1978 to 2004 before becoming the president and CEO of the Asia Foundation, began his talk with what he believed were the most pressing issues regarding global food security, including access problems, climate change and the volatility of prices.

“To succeed (in feeding the world), this needs to be a concerted global effort,” Bereuter said. “More must be expected of (Brazil, Russia, India and China). China should be asked to do more on cooperative basis, India must begin to address its own domestic problems out of sense of national (pride) and the U.S. must focus on areas it has comparative advantage.”

His suggestions for what should be done included a national authorization bill, a focus on universities, incentivizing businesses, helping women farmers, focusing on sustainable farming methods and removing trade barriers.

“In any international effort made by the United States to develop food security, we should emphasize comparative expertise role-agricultural science,” said Bereuter of American universities. “We need to reverse public funding educational exchanges in a broad array of fields that were once more advanced. Land-grant institutions needs to rebuild relationships around world (that) they’ve been neglected.”

In the audience was an economics class from Berkeley High School. The class’s teacher, Matt Meyers, was notified of the event by the Robert T. Matsui Center for Public Service and thought it was relevant to his class’s discussion on international development.

“We’re doing a unit on international development and talking about these issues, such as subsidies and what poverty looks like, so I thought coming here would make it more relatable,” said Meyers, who did not make the event mandatory but had more than 15 students attend. “I found myself agreeing with more than I thought I would, and I appreciated that his talk was less political and more ethically focused.”

One of Meyers’ students posed a question to the Bereuter regarding his position on what role genetically modified organisms had to play in feeding the planet.

“I’ve battled the (European Union) parliament on this,” Bereuter said. “GMOs are important to raising food production in the world.”

Another member of the audience pointed out that the projection that the world’s population would be 9 billion by 2050 relied on current fertility rates falling and that world leaders should plan to feed a larger number of people. Bereuter replied that he did not think the projection was Malthusian but that it was perhaps too low and could be reasonably be expected to be higher.

David Kaufman, an undergraduate who works for the campus Institute of Governmental Studies, the event’s host organization, found the event to be better than previous years’ Matsui lectures.

“It was a terrific talk on an important topic that presents challenges for the world,” Kaufman said. “It was a great, diverse turnout that spilled out into the standing room. We’ve never done that before.”

Professor David Zilberman, chair of the campus department of agriculture and resource economics, attended the lecture and commended Bereuter for discussing the need to incentivize the private sector to establish infrastructure to help feed more people in sub-Saharan Africa. He noted that while Bereuter was right in advocating in support for small-holder and subsistence farming efforts, more would need to be done to create “economically viable” farms that would bring farmers larger incomes.

Zilberman also stated the barriers to trade and subsidies to farmers that have been prevalent in the United States and which Bereuter called “a fundamental impediment for world’s developing countries” were oftentimes responses to similar Chinese and European policies. Bereuter mentioned that for the first time in several years, he has been hearing that Congress will consider farm-subsidy reform.

The Matsui Lecture is named after UC Berkeley alumnus Robert Matsui, who represented Sacramento in Congress for 26 years. Each year, the program brings a former member of Congress to campus for a one-week residency.

Contact Levon Minassian at [email protected].