#foodcrisis graphic novel looks to bring food security into focus

By 2050, the world will need to feed nine billion people. By then, experts warn that the consequences of not addressing today’s food insecurity issues could have dire consequences: famine, riots and crisis in the global food system.

In an effort to meet this challenge, one Peter Wall visiting researcher has launched a new graphic novel project to help introduce the concepts behind food security to a new generation of high school students.

“Solving global food security is on the same scale of challenge as, say, the Emancipation, abolishing slavery [or] civil rights. This is a generation-defining problem,” says Dr. Evan Fraser, a Wall Institute International Visiting Research Scholar and Canada research chair in Global Food Security in the Department of Geography at the University of Guelph.

It is the gravity of that message that Dr. Fraser, who is spending a year in residency at UBC, hopes readers will take home from the graphic novel series.

#foodcrisis opens with a grim picture. In a not-so-distant future, massive droughts, poor harvests and volatile food markets have fuelled an unprecedented global food crisis. Food riots have become common. People suffer. And while many blame climate change, others point to large corporations and governments who are making huge profits out of hunger.

“The plot for the graphic novel emerged out of that nightmarish part of your imagination that watched the Walking Dead, and I wrote it that way because it’s exciting to read.”

Dr. Fraser teamed up with artist Scott Mooney to create #foodcrisis, a comic targeted at high school students who may not yet fully understand what could happen if the world doesn't act on today's food security issues.

The fast-paced apocalyptic story, set in 2025, is a fictional account ­­– although the plot is based on the real histories of past food crises like the Depression-era Dust Bowl famine or 2011 unrest over food prices in the Middle East that helped fuel the Arab Spring movement. However, Dr. Fraser admits that although pressing, the reality of the situation isn’t as bleak as the graphic novel suggests.

“I don’t think we’re standing on the brink of a massive collapse. I think there are major things wrong with the global food system – I think it has to change to become more equitable and more sustainable.”

#foodcrisis is targeted at high-school students and aims to make the complexity of the issues effecting food security – from climate to global wealth distribution ­– more engaging and understandable. Included alongside the graphic novel are 12 essays and more than 200 footnotes that provide balance and context to the fictionalized story about the current global situation.

"I don't want the story to be read on it's own," explains Dr. Fraser, who calls food security the "grand challenge of the 21st Century."

Although the graphic novel is written to be attention-grabbing, Dr. Fraser says he hopes it inspires readers to look at solutions to today’s growing food security issues, such as eating locally and in season when possible, or addressing the huge amount of food wasted globally between farm and plate.

Dr. Fraser and the team at Feeding Nine Billion, a group dedicated to exploring food security issues, launched the graphic novel in November 2014 in conjunction with World Food Day. The launch also kicked off a month-long fundraiser using the crowd-funding website Kickstarter, which raised more than $7,000 to distribute the #foodcrisis graphic novel and classroom materials to teachers in Canada and the US.

Riots are one element of food security issues explored in the #foodcrisis graphic novel.

On the whole, Dr. Fraser says academics need to do a better job of reaching out to inform public debate and policy-making.

"You have to be willing to tell the story rather than just present the analysis," he says.

While in residence at UBC, Dr. Fraser will work with host and Institute Associate Dr. Hannah Wittman, of UBC's Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, through the Visiting Research Scholar Program.

"She comes at the same set of issues that I do, but she comes at them from very much a grass roots organizational focus, whereas I'm spending a lot of time doing op-eds for media, Twitter and stuff like that."

Since the field of food security requires an understanding everything from agronomy, crop production and soil science, to wealth distribution and gender politics, Dr. Fraser sees the opportunity to engage with interdisciplinary teams as key. Since he knows a little about all the various aspects of the food security field, he says he sees himself as a sort of "glue" to bring together collaboration between more specialized researchers.

In fact, while in residence at the Institute, Dr. Fraser will work with Dr. Wittman and Dr. Navin Ramankutty, a physical geography specialist at UBC and Canada Research Chair in Food Security, on a theoretical framework that combines large quantitative data measurements on land and food security, with a more nuanced qualitative understanding of food security that suggests local factors are key to whether or not people have access to enough nutrition.

"Any of these global challenges require interdisciplinary thinking. By their definition, these are not problems which can be solved with any one world view," says Dr. Fraser.