Nourished Planet: Sustainability in the Global Food System

There appears to be growing realization that we need to do something about our environment. A recent report released during the World Economic Forum  at Davos last month suggests that we are in dire straights and need to reform soon or face doom. Release of the Green New Deal document indicates that the issue of sustainability and the food supply will be a key campaign issue in the 2020 US Presidential primaries and election. Ever since I read Famine 1975 and The Hungry Planet, I have been interested in world hunger. It was not until my last year teaching at the University of Georgia that I became a convert to the need for sustainability. I taught a special problems course in current food issues, and sustainability kept bubbling to the top. Nourished Planet is edited by Danielle Nierenberg and provides comments from members of the New Food Movement. The effort is sponsored by the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition. While I agree with many of the goals expressed in this book, it will not surprise any regular readers of this blog that I question many of the solutions proposed in its pages.

“many of the largest impacts on the health of humans, ecosystems, agricultural lands, waters, and seas arising from various types of agricultural and food systems are economically invisible.” Although this book is driven by the New Food Movement, it seeks to be grounded in economically valid programs. The approach goes to bottom-up solutions rather than top-down prescriptions. It is clear that these solutions are NOT technology driven. Rather the approach is a rejection of advanced technology and desire to reclaim a simpler form of agriculture. GMOs are out and agroecology is in. Scientific or precision farming is out while organic farming forms the basis of crop production.

Such prescriptions are in stark contrast to solutions proposed by Robert Paarlberg in his book Starved for Science and his recent Brooks Lecture at the University of Georgia as reviewed on this site. He does not call for exporting the advanced farming techniques to nations around the world. Rather, he calls for the use of appropriate technology, including GMOs, to increase yields and decrease waste. Agroecology, subsistence-organic farming and other similar techniques described in both Nourished Planet and Starved for Science, Paarlberg claims, have not been demonstrated to work on the scale needed to improve the lives of hungry, agrarian people. He points to the irony of African farms exporting organic produce to Europe.

“If we eat well, by reducing our meat consumption and focusing on a more plant-based diet full of whole grains and good fats such as olive oil, we can improve our own health and the health of the planet.” We are told that we can improve personal health and global sustainability simultaneously without tradeoffs. All we have to do is cut back on meat, preferably stop eating meat altogether. Pardon my skepticism, but I don’t think meat eaters are going to go quietly to a plant-based dinner table. Meat eating around the world is largely constrained by economics with large numbers of consumers around the world vegetarian by circumstance and not by choice. A rise in income levels tends to lead to a rise in purchase and consumption of meat. Introduction of meat to the diet of children improves their nutritional profile in terms of protein, vitamins and minerals while excess meat consumption can have adverse health consequences for adults.

Tracy steak one.pngPhoto by Tracy Jaico

Plant-based diets are becoming popular in wealthy nations among those concerned about global climate change. A massive reduction in meat-based meals resulting in significant decreases in greenhouse gas emissions seems unlikely, however. The seriousness of the threat to the environment by meat animals has recently been questioned. An erroneous assumption in a Life Cycle Analysis of livestock by the FAO purportedly spread a false narrative on the unsustainability of meat production. Life Cycle Analyses are great tools in assessing environmental and economic impact, but they are only as good as the assumptions they are based on.

“sustainable agriculture systems are able to efficiently and comprehensively meet the food, fuel and fiber needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet the needs of tomorrow.” This statement highlights the overabundance of food and fuel in Western countries when compared to its underabundance in African nations. The assumption made in Nourished Planet is that we have enough to eat on the planet, and hunger is merely a problem of distribution. I question whether we truly have enough to eat at present. I do not believe that we will have enough to sustain the world population as it continues its climb to at least nine billion by the year 2050 without much more aggressive means than those suggested in this book. Even if there is enough to feed the world comfortably now or then, how are we going to get the haves to give up their food and lifestyle to feed the have-nots? And how are we going to convince vegetarians-by circumstance-not-by-choice that it is in their best interest not to eat meat when their incomes rise to a level they can afford meat?

 “investments in infrastructure, including better roads, cooling facilities for produce and dairy products, and better storage for grains and other crops are essential.” The investments called for here are crucial in getting more food to market and decreasing food waste. Food waste in developing countries is primarily the result of food losses between the farm and the market. Food waste in countries with more advanced technological economies occurs primarily after it reaches the market. Let’s hope that as infrastructure improves, their consumers don’t adopt wasteful Western practices. At the heart of food security is economic security of the population, particularly of farmers. The challenge is to enhance cooperation between government and farmers while limiting speculation. Nourished Planet calls for getting rid of for-profit organizations and encouraging government control. If not from a free-market economy, where are these investments coming from? Governments in at-risk countries have not provided needed resources in the past. What incentives do their leaders have to make these changes?

 “Strengthening local and regional food systems and investing in long-term solutions to mitigate and adapt to climate change are the most effective ways to curb prices and prevent political instability.” Once again, the authors clearly identify a crucial piece of the long-term solution to alleviating hunger and achieving sustainability. Volatile prices threaten the stability of any government. Appropriate technology is critical in upgrading subsistence farming and inadequate infrastructure to sustainable food systems. Too often foreign solutions overemphasize either too much or too little technology that is not tailored for the specific needs of that society it is trying to help. Also, as described in Starved for Science, well-meaning outside agencies may attempt to impose regulations appropriate at home but not suitable to mitigating or adapting to challenges by nations unable to adequately feed themselves. Again, who will provide these resources? If local governments are unwilling or unable, will richer countries come through altruistically without imposing unrealistic conditions?

“Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.” A cute saying, but it sounds more like if you don’t eat what I eat or believe what I believe then you don’t belong in the conversation. The bottom line in Nourished Planet is a call to support health, social justice and sustainability. Who is not for these ideals, but do we need to be so judgmental? A major point in the book is the affliction of obesity and malnutrition occurring in the same persons. Yes, such cases occur and overconsumption of processed, junk foods are a part of the problem. There are many more people in Western countries who are obese but not malnourished than obese, malnourished ones. There are also many more people in less technologically advanced countries who are malnourished but not obese. Using examples like this one do not advance us to meaningful solutions. Likewise, the basic premise of books like Nutritionism, that we should not be emphasizing single nutrients anymore because people no longer contract scurvy or rickets or beriberi, belies the importance of nutrient-dense foods, processed or not.

Bottom line. The problem that I have with the Nourished Planet is that it appears to be locked into specific solutions—primarily anti-technology—with no room for discussion of alternate perspectives. I firmly believe that global climate change and the associated damage to the environment is is real and requires attention from wealthy and impoverished nations alike. While the goals expressed in this book are admirable, it seems to be trying to take us back to a simpler time inhabited by many less humans. We live on a globe, however, that is experiencing exponential population growth. Of particular concern is that greatest increases are projected in regions where food production is currently insufficient to prevent hunger. We need to wake up. Advanced technology has created this population explosion. If we aren’t already past the number we can comfortably feed, we will probably reach it before many readers of this blog have passed on. Avoiding technology will not solve world food problems, but a much more rational application of technology will be needed if we are to solve them healthily, equitably and sustainably.

Next week: Some alternative visions for a sustainable future


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