Evan Fraser

Fellows
2014
Current affiliation:
University of Guelph
Localisation:

A global expert in food security, Professor Fraser raises awareness of the social and environmental consequences of food price volatility and looks for ways to reduce waste in global food systems.

2014 Trudeau fellow Evan Fraser holds the tier I Canada Research Chair on Global Food Security at the University of Guelph. He is a fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and a member of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars.  Fraser focuses on food systems that are resilient to climate change, productive enough to meet the needs of the growing human population, and have a lighter impact on the environment. He is also interested in reducing food waste and improving distribution. The author of some 80 peer scholarly articles and two books, Fraser has authored columns that have appeared on CNN.com, theguardian.com, foreignaffairs.com, The Walrus, and the Ottawa Citizen. 

Research projects

Q & A

1) Tell us about your Trudeau project.

My research career is focused around two questions: (1) given climate change and high energy prices, how do we feed a human population that is set to reach 9 billion people by 2050; and (2) what are the consequences of failing to achieve this goal? 

While academics have been worrying about this for decades, things came into focus in 2008 when commodity prices more than doubled and then shot up again in 2010-2011.  These spikes precipitated a crisis that threw tens of millions into poverty and caused widespread political turmoil. The earliest protests in the Arab Spring were crowds in the streets, waving loaves of bread, outraged over the price of food.  But much remains unclear.  While many of the world’s top scientists argue that we need to boost production to prevent recurrences of this crisis, others point out that the price of food bears little relation to the supply of food, let alone famine or political volatility. 

Similarly, the links between food prices and political upheaval are more complex than appear at first glance.  For the most part, the world’s 700-900 million hungry simply suffer in silence and there are no obvious patterns that explain why people sometimes react to expensive food by spilling into the streets, while other times, they simply tighten their belts.  Thus, while acknowledging the serious challenges the next generation faces as we try to sustainably feed 9 billion people, we must also realize: (1) that food prices, food supply and food-related political/economic upheaval are not correlated in any simple way; (2) that there is enough food for everyone on the planet today; and (3) that it is unclear how boosting production will reduce future problems emerging.  

2) Explain one of the most interesting discovering you have made so far.

The most interesting thing I have learned while studying global food security is that although producing food is inherently a biological process involving sunlight, carbon dioxide, soil nutrients, and water, it is equally a social, political and economic process. 

For instance, early in my career I explored cases where relatively small weather events had enormous impacts on food security. Cases included the Irish potato famine, which was triggered by a series of rainy years that created ideal conditions for a fungal blight to destroy the potato crop, and Ethiopia's famine in the 1980s, which was ostensibly caused by a drought (although the meteorological record suggests that rainfall had not been particularly bad). By studying cases like these, I have learned that socioeconomic and institutional factors can help make food systems brittle and liable to collapse during relatively small environmental problems.  By the same token, socioeconomic factors can make food systems resilient and able to withstand even serious weather-related problems. 

From studying these case studies, I think that policymakers interested in identifying where food systems may be vulnerable to climate change need to focus on three distinct scales. First, we need to assess the ecological conditions of specific farms, looking at things like crop diversity, the amount of soil organic matter present in the fields, and the availability of groundwater. Next, we need to assess the extent to which individual families have access to a range of social, political, and economic assets, such as extended networks of family and friends or financial savings that can be drawn upon in times of need. Finally, we need to look at the extent to which formal institutions can and are able to provide relief in the event of a major disaster. In this way, the environmental characteristics of the farm, the asset base of the family, and the institutional capacity of a region represent three distinct lines of defense against climate change.

We can apply a similar logic when we think of food security from the perspective of the consumer. For instance, while many scientists worry that farmers won't be able to produce enough calories or protein to keep 9 billion people alive over the next hundred years, we must also understand that social, political, and economic factors may make it difficult to distribute the food that we do produce.  Again, the key lesson is that to understand food security, we need to understand the interaction between the environmental forces that determine how much food we produce and the socioeconomic and political forces that dictate who actually obtains this food.  

This means that to truly develop integrated and innovative solutions to this pressing global problem, we need to use an interdisciplinary framework that draws equally on ecology, climatology, and biology as well as on economics, anthropology, and political science. This is what I love about this problem: it forces those of us working in this area to be continually learning new things and working with new groups of people. 

3) How will the Trudeau fellowship help you pursue your work?

My Trudeau fellowship builds onto my existing research program, which is funded in part through the Canada Research Chair program.  Briefly, my overall goals are to (1) conduct applied research on global food security and (2) to conduct awareness-raising programs on this important topic. 

In terms of the first topic, applied research on global food security, I am working on the following:

    1. Understanding the Social Consequences of Food Price Volatility.  I will conduct a large scale research program to explore how people have already been, and are likely to be, affected by food price volatility, and to suggest solutions to this problem in Canada and abroad.
    2. Quantifying Efficiencies in Today’s Food System. I will systematically assess where efficiencies may be found in today’s food system and will explore policy pathways to reach these efficiencies.

In terms of the second topic, awareness-raising programs on global food security, I am working on the following:

  1. The ''Feeding Nine Billion'' Social Media Education Program.  I will raise awareness of these important issues among members of the Canadian public through a social media-based education program that uses videos and graphic novels to communicate about the global food crisis.
  2. Campus, Provincial, and National Contests to Develop Global Food Security Solutions.  I will convene a roundtable on global food security that will host a series of contests geared at creating and catalyzing innovative solutions to global food issues.  

4) How will your Trudeau project help develop better public policies in Canada?

I firmly believe that all academics, but especially people who have high profile appointments such as the Trudeau fellowship, have an obligation to devote significant effort to communicating with non-academic audiences.  This means not only writing for non-academic audiences, speaking to community groups, and being interviewed by the media, but also engaging with social media sources such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. As a result, a major output of my Trudeau fellowship will be the creation of a graphic novel titled #foodcrisis that fictionalizes a global food crisis. Briefly, I will draw on the history of past food crisis such as the Dust Bowl as well as the food riots in 2008 / 2011 and imagine them as if they had happened in the United States in 2025.   Using this as a backdrop, I will write a fictionalized account of how these events might play out and will hire an illustrator to turn this into a comic book.  I am now writing a series of background essays to help separate fact from fiction that will accompany the graphic novel.  I have already had connections with a group of Ontario high school teachers who are interested in incorporating this product into the lesson plans they are developing for the grade 9-12 social studies curriculum, whcih features modules dealing with food and food studies.  

To help catalyze solutions as well as to raise public awareness on the challenges associated with global food security, I will also convene a series of events organized as “hack-a-thons”[1], with the aim of engaging students, academics, policymakers and members of private business and civil society.  The goal is to reach out to teams across the country to create and implement solutions to two vital issues facing Canada’s food system: the need to reduce food waste and the need for less resource-intensive protein sources.  But these hack-a-thons will ask teams to go beyond exploring the technical challenges of reducing food waste and finding alternative protein sources.  Teams will be specifically asked to address regulatory challenges and explore what sort of policy changes must achieved to ensure that their solutions result in meaningful change.  Too often, we assume that scientifically sound ideas that look great in the lab will work in the real world -- only to find a host of legal, social, or economic hurdles preventing meaningful change.  

My role, therefore, will be to facilitate a conversation between the teams working on the solutions and experts from other sectors of society so that proposed solutions are holistic and integrated enough to make a real difference in the food systems of the future.  I will then seek to use my own networks in the policy and private sectors to link innovative solutions to relevant businesses and governmental departments. 


[1] “Hack-a-thon” is a concept that is inspired from the field of computer science and refers to events where programmers collaborate intensively on shared problems.  In our case, we use this phrase to refer to an event where we will bring teams together to work intensively on finding innovative solutions to problems in the food system. 

 

Evan Fraser stared thinking about agriculture and food systems while spending summers working on his grandfather’s fruit farm in the Niagara region of Ontario, Canada. There, he watched his stockbroker grandmother rake in an unconscionable amount of money on commissions from her clients’ investments while neighbouring farmers were letting their crops rot because the cost of harvesting was higher than the cost of importing food from the Southern US and Mexico. Having decided, however, that it was easier to write and talk about farming than to try to make a living from it, Evan passed on inheriting the family farm, opting instead for graduate school and degrees in forestry, anthropology, and agriculture from the University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto. After graduating, he worked in a policy institute with the Hon. Dr. Lloyd Axworthy before beginning his academic career in 2003 in the United Kingdom, where he worked on farming and climate change at the University of Leeds. Professor Fraser is the author of approximately 70 scientific papers and book chapters. He has written for the Guardian.com, CNN.com, ForeignAffairs.com, The Walrus and the Ottawa Citizen, and he has published two popular non-fiction books about food and food security, one of which -- Empires of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations -- was shortlisted for the James Beard Food Literature Award. “Feeding Nine Billion,” Professor Fraser's web video series, has been watched over 90,000 times and has been used in classrooms around the world. Currently, Evan Fraser holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security in the Department of Geography at the University of Guelph, where he is working on a graphic novel about a fictitious food crisis that hits North America in the 2020s.