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Doing More with Less: Fixing Our Food System

This piece is part of our 2018 United Nations General Assembly series.

More than 50 years ago, one of The Rockefeller Foundation’s acclaimed researchers, Dr. Norman Borlaug, developed new strains of wheat that would spur the beginning of modern, high-yield agricultural production. The “Green Revolution” ultimately saved 1 billion people from starvation and famine. For decades, the world has made slow and steady progress in the fight against hunger. But today, after several years of decline, global hunger is back on the rise. And it’s not just hunger killing people, but obesity and other forms of malnutrition—diseases that feed off the lack of necessary nutrients the body needs to be healthy and productive.

Last week, I spoke at a conference called, “Towards Zero Hunger: Partnerships for Impact,” at Wageningen University & Research in The Netherlands. I asked the audience this central question:

What does it mean to save a billion from starvation if we then allow their children and grandchildren to suffer from malnutrition, or worse?

Wageningen is one of the world’s great centers of learning related to agriculture. It’s positioned in a place called Food Valley, where the science and technology used to feed the world is constantly reimagined, researched, reinvented, and applied every day. It’s an inspirational place. The Netherlands is not only a global powerhouse for sustainable and nourishing food, but also a source of knowledge and science that underpins our global food system. The Dutch have discovered ways to produce more food while using less energy, less fertilizer, less pesticides, and a lot less water than any other country. More important, the Netherlands has brought together government, business, and academia to develop a food system that powers their economy while guiding us all toward a new Food Revolution fit for our age.

We must act now to spark a modern Food Revolution that feeds, nourishes, and sustains us.

Hunger should be simple enough to solve. Just grow more food and give it to people who need it, right?

Wrong. Although our food system is the most productive in human history, it is failing at feeding, nourishing, and sustaining the world.

Last year, 815 million people went to bed hungry every night—an increase of 30 million people from the previous year— despite our ability to feed everyone on Earth 1.5-times-over. Globally, we waste 30-40% of the food we grow by leaving it to rot in the field, spoil in storage, or discard as trash. We have plenty of food in the United States, but nearly 15% of the population is food insecure.

Our food system is also failing at nourishing the world. Today, more than 2 billion people suffer from chronic malnutrition, whether undernourishment, micronutrient deficiencies, or overweight and obesity. One-in-five children under 5 is stunted, wasted, or overweight, contributing to health maladies, impaired cognitive ability, and reduced school performance. And obesity rates have tripled globally since 1975, contributing to skyrocketing medical costs associated with treating related diseases like diabetes. According to the WHO, diet quality is now the leading contributing factor of death and disability worldwide.

Finally, our food system is failing our planet. Today, agriculture accounts for 70% of all freshwater use; takes up roughly 50% of the planet’s vegetated land; and is responsible for nearly 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions—more than every car, truck, ship, train, and plane on Earth combined. Yet, demand for meat, eggs, and dairy will only rise as billions of people in developing countries go from living on $2 to $10-a-day.

For more than 50 years, the global food system has been built to maximize profit and production over health and natural resources. It over-prioritizes the kind of food—cereal grains and animal protein—that, taken in excess, make us sick and fuel global warming. Meanwhile, as the world grows, the vast majority of public and private sector investments in food and agriculture research still go to the Big Five: corn, soybeans, rice, wheat, and animal protein. This prioritization also encourages entrenched global subsidies to continue unabated, with governments propping up a broken, outdated system with our tax money.

How do we fix this broken system?

Dr. Rajiv Shah speaking with Wageningen University and Research African Ph.D. and Masters students with Dr. Akin Adesina, World Food Prize Laureate and President of the African Development Bank Group.

First: Stop the shortcuts. For example, if we learn that certain people are deficient in vitamin A, today’s food system responds by breeding more vitamin A into rice or adding it during processing. In some cases, enriching or fortifying foods can save lives, but as a shortcut for the masses, it is a bad deal. Instead, we should invest in a food system that produces foods naturally rich in the vitamins and minerals we need to be healthy. To that point, just 2% of U.S. cropland is planted to fruits and vegetables, supported by a subsidy system that rewards corn growers but penalizes broccoli farmers. Policymakers can encourage a sensible approach by limiting or ending the use of refined and processed products in institutions like schools, hospitals, and global feeding programs, and replacing them with whole, nutritious foods grown within a reasonable distance.

Second: Shift the weight of funding toward a new generation of “staple” foods—which today the system treats as specialty or alternative, but really are staples of a healthy diet. Fruits, vegetables, and legumes need a greater share of public and private research dollars as well as risk protection. Global research organizations like the World Bank’s CGIAR essentially set the global dinner plate by influencing how national governments fund food research, which ultimately encourages commodity subsidies for the Big Five “staples.” Here, philanthropies like Rockefeller can help break the cycle by spurring new funds and platforms that invest in research, development and insurance products that prioritize human health and the environment.

Third: Create a balanced protein system. People need protein to be healthy and productive. Yet, animal agriculture is the most detrimental force in our food system. It’s not as simple as replacing meat with plant-based protein powder or fortifying staple grains with higher amounts of protein. In fact, lots of trusted research tells us that kids thrive with just a small amount of animal protein in their diets each day. The challenge is to establish greater balance of plant and animal proteins for our health and reduce livestock’s impact on our planet.

Rising hunger and malnutrition along with declining natural resources and a warming planet threaten our very existence. We must act now to spark a modern Food Revolution that feeds, nourishes and sustains us.

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