Workshop on the Sustainability of the World's Food and Farming Systems

This seminar is closed to the public.

The Workshop on the Sustainability of the World's Food and Farming Systems convenes in 2013–2014 to consider the phenomena of food and farming in their global context. Workshop participants are investigating several broad food-system questions:

  • Taking into consideration the international grain price spikes of both 2007–2008 and 2010–2011, should we conclude that the long-term (twentieth-century) trend toward lower real food prices has finally been halted, or even reversed?
  • Is the world's increasingly specialized and industrialized food production system fundamentally incompatible with environmental sustainability? Would it be better to revert to less specialized traditional systems, or innovate greener industrial systems?
  • To what extent has obesity caused by over-nutrition (particularly in industrial countries) replaced hunger and under-nutrition as the world's most pressing “food problem”?
  • To what extent can the problems of today's food and farming systems be adequately addressed by national governments, as opposed to intergovernmental institutions, private business firms, or civil-society organizations?

Because responsible treatment of these topics requires a multidisciplinary perspective, more than one dozen invited participants are drawn from the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities, as well as from medicine, law, business administration, and engineering. In 2012–2013, the workshop benefited from presentations by a number of guest experts, including a former executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme, a leading academic authority on food price spikes and social unrest, and a specialist on the extension of center-pivot irrigation systems into Africa. In addition, a Harvard-based research team investigating sustainable farming system innovations presented a preliminary version of their findings to the workshop.

The workshop meets up to eight times during the academic year over dinner. At the conclusion of the series, the group assesses its progress and considers plans for future work.

Workshop conveners are Robert Paarlberg, Betty Freyhof Johnson Class of 1944 Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College and associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs; John Briscoe, professor of the practice of environmental health, Harvard School of Public Health, and Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Environmental Health, School for Engineering and Applied Sciences; and Missy Holbrook, professor of biology and Charles Bullard Professor of Forestry, Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. The workshop is co-sponsored by the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and the Sustainability Science Program of Harvard Kennedy School’s Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government.

Those seeking an invitation to the seminar should contact Steven B. Bloomfield.


Robert L. Paarlberg

Associate. Betty F. Johnson Professor of Political Science, Department of Political Science, Wellesley College.

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See also: Closed Seminars