Food, the Thinking Person's Game

  • 49 million Americans are still food insecure as food stamps are cut.
  • Fosters Farm chicken linked to a salmonella outbreak.
  • Diet soda consumption is falling and all soda consumption down.
  • Close to 40 percent of food is wasted worldwide.
  • Violence continues in the Horn of Africa where millions of the 850 million hungry people around the world live.

And let's not forget cronuts or test tube meat. These are just some of the top news headlines in the last few weeks -- all about food. From food safety and food preferences to global hunger, domestic obesity, food waste and food science, what we eat certainly seems to be quite the topic of conversation. With 850 million people suffering from hunger and malnutrition and 1.4 billion dealing with obesity, there is clearly much to talk about.

Unfortunately, too many of these statistics and stories are happening in silos. Groups working on hunger too often focus on agricultural yields at the expense of nutrition and biodiversity and forget that we already grow enough food to feed the world and are wasting 40 percent of it. Food scientists and companies concocting the next low-calorie drink or lab-grown beef patty ignore changing consumer habits and the renewed global interest in farm-to-table eating. Groups seeking to end violence and improve the local and global economies often overlook the role that basic good nutrition and sustainable farming systems have in society.

Last week, a group of folks committed to fighting hunger met in Des Moines, Iowa for the World Food Prize, but they were likely a group of long-time executives of Big Food and Ag companies and Big Aid organizations pronouncing how "we will feed the world" -- forgetting the fact that many of "them" have been at it for years and "we" have seen hunger persist and obesity balloon. We certainly cannot forget the essential legacy of scientists like Dr. Norman Borlaug to push for a hunger-free world, but we also cannot do so at the expense of the planet and of healthy, diverse diets.

A few states away, on the same days last week, the Cleveland Clinic hosted its Annual Obesity Summit. They looked at obesity causes and diet, yes, but also spent lots of time focused on bariatric surgery and other medical treatments. Then a few days later in Texas, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which is infamously sponsored by the likes of Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and ConAgra Foods, hosted their annual conference for nutritionists. These events and their sponsors and topics seem to gravely miss the point that it's our food system itself causing obesity, and with nutritionists in bed with soda and snack companies, it will be tough to imagine any real progress in thinking or action.

Also last week, on World Food Day, October 16th, groups of sustainable food activists gathered for dinners organized by Oxfam America that encourage people to buy from local farmers and use their food dollars to help farmers in the developing world. The links between what we eat as western consumers and what is grown and eaten around the world are deep. If you don't quite understand how what we eat in our own homes can have an impact in this huge global system, you are not alone. Following the chain of linkages from farm to factory to fridge practically requires an advanced degree.

Food used to be something that we would prepare or were served a few times a day in the form of a simple meal of whole foods. Today, food and the ultimate question of "what should we eat" has become a much more complex set of decisions and requires much more information. To make those decisions and really make progress in our food system thinking, we'll need to break down the silos between African hunger and American hamburgers. We'll need to arm ourselves, and our neighbors around the world, with an understanding of and access to good, diverse nutrition. We'll need to rethink and redesign how we grow safe chickens and reduce waste while reducing our waists. We'll need to read labels and read legislation to make sure that eaters and farmers are both getting a fair price and a fresh product. And we'll need to ensure that the cronut stays a uniquely delicious treat and not the new staple food for a widening population.

Just imagine what ideas might come if the World Food Prize included the Cleveland Clinic obesity experts and a big group of nutritionists? Would biotech scientists from Monsanto and Syngenta still be winning the top award this year for improving yields of corn, soy and wheat if the doctors reminded them that the obesity epidemic of eating too much of foods is actually killing more people than hunger? Would we be better able to deal with growing security threats in Africa if we could get food security and healthy diets right? Would nutritionists force hospitals and schools to stop serving soda and junk food, if they weren't sponsored by the companies that make it? If less healthy food wasn't subsidized and actually cost more, wouldn't we all eat fresh, local and organic foods?