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Feeding the world fairly

November 29th, 2012
Fair access to good food is a challenge as old as civilization, and failing to meet it contributed to the fall of the French monarchy ('let them eat cake'), Babylon, Athens and the Roman Empire. As the global populace climbs toward an expected nine billion by 2050, an $800,000 grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation will fund collaborative work by three divisions of Johns Hopkins University to develop ethical guidelines to help meet the challenge in our day.

"There is something profoundly wrong about a world in which nearly two billion people are undernourished while another two billion people are overweight," says Ruth Faden, PhD, MPH, director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, who, along with Alan Goldberg, PhD, from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Robert Thompson, PhD, of Johns Hopkins' Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, will lead the project. "This collaboration among Johns Hopkins institutions will examine one of the fundamental obstacles to achieving global food security: profound disagreement about what it means to feed the world ethically," Faden says.

The project leaders will recruit diverse experts and stakeholders from around the world to characterize differences in ethical assumptions and aims, and to search for moral common ground, Faden says. Participants will include those involved in high and low yield farming, agricultural technology and the welfare of animals, the environment and workers.

"We expect that there will be negotiation and conflict among competing interests, but all the players need to be at the table," says Thompson. A working, weeklong conference is planned for 2014.

"The goal of this meeting is to produce a document of shared moral principles or commitments that will provide the understanding of the basic issues that must be included to identify fair or ethical food guidelines," says Goldberg.

The Stavros Niarchos Foundation funds diverse non-profit organizations and projects around the world that have the potential for broad, lasting and positive social impact, according to the foundation. In the 1930s, Niarchos expanded his family's grain business by thinking globally, buying the ships that transported wheat.

"Mark Twain wrote that hunger is the handmaid of genius; I do believe that if we bring committed people together and treat these issues with the gravity they deserve, we will find a way to narrow what are now broad differences of opinion on a profoundly important question: how to feed everyone, ethically. It is doable," Faden says.

Provided by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

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