7 Billion People

Today I attended a panel discussion at the WNYC Studios in SoHo entitled “How Do We Feed a Planet of 7 Billion?” It was hosted by the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition, and Worldwatch Institute. The session doubled as a book launch for Eating Planet: Nutrition Today – A Challenge for Mankind and the Planet 2012. The book, like the Barilla Center, focuses on reforming the global food system through four interrelated lenses: food for all (issues of fairness), food for sustainability, food for health, and food for culture. All four must be addressed for any single element to be improved, a key to the book, to the discussion, and to the mission of the Barilla Center and Worldwatch. When one element is out of balance, so are all the others.

The problems outlined at the start of the discussion are immense and wide-ranging: there are 1 billion hungry people worldwide and 1 billion obese people worldwide; 30% of food worldwide is wasted or left to spoil due to issues of storage; there is a growing disconnect between people and their food. The four lenses serve to frame these issues and point the way forward in seeking to solve them holistically.

Three discussion topics stood out to me during today’s session: the connection between the 1 billion obese people and the 1 billion hungry people, the huge amount of food that goes to waste, and the issue of meat-eating.

Brian Halweil, the editor of Edible East End and the co-publisher of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan, spoke of how widespread hunger and widespread obesity are actually two sides of the same coin: they are the result of a system that does not value nourishing people, but instead measures success based on productivity and corporate profit. If we use those measurements, then the system is a success. But sheer production does not feed us; what will ultimately feed the hungry and provide the obese populations with healthier food is a shift in our mindset to see nourishment as the key measurement. Halweil said that solutions to both of these problems are essentially the same: educate the kids, focus on vegetables, reduce waste.

Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, talked about the issue of food that goes to waste, saying that in the U.S. we waste enough food each day to fill the Rose Bowl, a 90,000 seat stadium in Pasadena, CA. He talked about the ABC of waste in the developed world: abundance (food is everywhere; we create more calories than we need), beauty (we expect our food to look pristine; appearance trumps taste and those items that don’t look right don’t make it off the shelves), and cost (food is too cheap, we spend a very small percentage of our household income on food, and therefore we don’t value it as highly as we should). The result of these factors leads to that Rose Bowl-sized daily food waste. This points to the hunger issue as one of distribution, since there are lots of people throwing away lots of good food each day. More important, it shows that we need to look again at what we value as a society. Food has gotten lost in the shadows somehow, and now we need to bring it back into the light to show that value can be determined by more than just a price tag.

Ellen Gustafson, a member of the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition Advisory Board, spoke about the costs a food system that pours an abundance of chemical fertilizers and pesticides into the earth, and that produces an enormous and unsustainable amount of meat. On the topic of meat, she said quite simply that the foods that are healthiest for people (fruits and vegetables) are the healthiest for the earth, soil, water. Meat (especially red meat), has been shown to increase the risk of cancer and heart disease and is not a healthy habit for the earth either. Raising cows for meat requires a lot of land and water and contributes significantly to global warming. Read this post on NPR’s The Salt blog for more on the effects of our meat eating habit.

It should be no surprise that what is good for us is good for the land. We are one, after all. In addressing hunger, obesity, the effects of agriculture on the land, and many more issues, there is no better place to start than right there — our fundamental oneness with land and each other.

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