What’s wrong with our food system?

In the past month, I had the pleasure to be a guest speaker at two different events: the Finnish National Days of Nutrition and Aalto University’s Redesigning Society Course. Both of my talks dealt with global food security challenges.

These were two very different audiences, the first one consisting of nutrition specialists and professionals, the second one of students from a wide variety of backgrounds, most without any previous education in food, agriculture or nutrition topics (and therefore they came with a lot of great questions and comments).

Here are some of my current thoughts on food systems. These thoughts inspired me when putting together my presentations:

Ensuring food security for all is the greatest challenge of our time. This was the main message in both of my presentations. While food unites all people on this planet – we all need proteins, carbohydrates and fats to survive – it is also the great divider. We are living in a world in which nearly 800 million people are underweight and at the same time an estimated two billion are either obese or overweight. The food security challenge will only become more dire as our world population increases, our diets change, the climate is changing, and the natural resources agriculture is based on are being depleted in many parts of the world. This is THE challenge of mankind.

If we are not careful, healthy food will be the new divider. There is a worrisome trend happening in the world, something often referred to as the nutrition transition, in which local, traditional diets are replaced by so called Western diets dense with processed foods, sugar, fat and red meat. This transition can also be linked to the global decline of crop diversity as more and more of food calories in the world are provided by a few crops.Are we heading into a future where having a healthy, balanced diet becomes a privilege of the few? What can we do to prevent this? And what is the impact of the health/superfood trend in the West on poorer nations (case quinoa, case teff)?

We should critically assess the very commonly heard feed-the-world-rhetoric. You cannot have missed the feeding-the-world argument when reading about global food security. Whenever I see this sentence or use of words, I try to ask a few critical questions. Who is using it (universities/corporations/farmers/consumers) and where? When using it, what is this world we are referring to? Who is being fed? Which actions do we justify with this sentence? For example, if we clear land for agriculture in the tropics backed by the argument we are doing this to feed the world, are we really doing that, or are we clearing that land to feed the cattle or cars of those who already are doing well?

Are we willing to rethink agricultural policies? Agricultural policies and institutions were once created to 1) ensure national security/ self-sufficiency in food production 2) enhance economic growth by producing agricultural surpluses 3) maintain stability in society by feeding people. All of these have been important objectives, but in this current food security challenge we find ourselves in, we need to better include health, nutrition, equity and the environment in these policies. There is a need for global food and nutrition policies, not just agricultural policies, in both developed and developing countries. We can’t simply look at calories or staple crop production as an indicator of our agricultural success. Professor Roz Naylor of Stanford University summarises this in such a good way. 

The world can feel overwhelming and we easily lose sense of how to have an impact. The more information we have at hand, the more lost we sometimes feel. What I emphasize in my talks is that we have more knowledge than ever on how to solve food security challenges. However, to reach these solutions, we have to abandon traditional silos of expertise and understand the interconnectedness of things. For example, food and nutrition security has an impact on the educational performance of students and therefore on the capability of a country’s future working force and economic potential. That is a great example for teachers (are the kids in your class fed a balanced diet?), for economists (will a country prosper in the long run if its working force does not have access to nutritious food?) as well as for agriculturalists (producing enough calories, on its own, does not qualify as an indicator for a country’s food security situation) on how we need to see beyond the borders of our own disciplines.

Abandoning traditional silos does not mean that good old expertise has run its course. Not by a chance. I think long-term research and long-built expertise are more valuable than ever. However, future experts need to possess the skill to connect their expertise into a wider scheme of things. We cannot isolate ourselves in these traditional silos, just as we cannot think of our countries as separate entities in this world. We share this planet.

Photo: Anni Helldán


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