High rates of obesity, hunger, and malnutrition can be found around the world, but a new organization believes that solutions may already be within reach.
Launched on Jan. 10, the food and agriculture think tank known as Food Tank is on a mission to save a sick food system. The organization wants to get people better access to nutritious food, all while saving the environment, protecting food security, and giving the farmer a better wage.
It may sound like a tall order, but Food Tank co-founder Danielle Nierenberg has already seen many solutions in practice.
“There are already organizations working on the ground in every country in the world that are helping to improve soil quality, improve water quality, improve income, and increase gender equity,” said Nierenberg.
“But these smaller-scale innovations—even though they have a lot of potential to be replicated and scaled up—don’t get the attention, they don’t get the research, and they ultimately don’t get the investment they need,” she added.
Policymakers tend to overlook many innovative and even low-cost agriculture strategies in favor of what Nierenberg calls “the big, sexy, new technologies.”
But while the modern methods consistently get the lion’s share of funding, they may be more trouble than they are worth.
“What we’ve seen, especially with biotechnology which we’ve been investing a lot of money in over the last 20 years, is that it’s not living up to its promises,” said Nierenberg.
A Broken System
For decades, American agriculture has focused nearly all its resources on just a few crops, mainly corn and soy.
It is a strategy that has been celebrated for its high yields and reduced costs, but critics contend that people’s health and that of the planet have noticeably suffered as a result.
“More and more research is coming out about how obesity and poverty really go together,” said Nierenberg. “They’re the result of the same thing: a broken food system that either doesn’t provide enough food or enough nutritious food.”
You can get American-style snack food and fast food almost anywhere on the planet, but you can’t necessarily get healthy nutritious fruits and vegetables that are safe to eat.
—Ellen Gustafson, co-founder, Food Tank
“It’s providing enough calories,” she added. “It’s providing a lot of non-nutritious foods that fill us up, but they don’t nourish us.”
According to fellow Food Tank co-founder Ellen Gustafson, the sad irony in the fight against world hunger is that the American diet has become the standard for success.
“Over the past 5 to 10 years since I’ve been involved in hunger advocacy work, there has been a lot of focus on how we can feed the world,” said Gustafson, “and that’s very narrowly understood as feeding the world with how America has been feeding ourselves.
“When you look at the data on how America has been feeding ourselves, it doesn’t look so good,” she said. “You can get American-style snack food and fast food almost anywhere on the planet, but you can’t necessarily get healthy nutritious fruits and vegetables that are safe to eat.”
Changing the Metrics
When it comes to properly evaluating problems within the food system, Gustafson said that the most fundamental issue is asking the right questions.
According to her, when nearly all the major food conferences gauge success solely on crop yield and calorie production, real solutions can be elusive.
“If you think about it, science is always limited by the question that we’re asking to solve,” she said. “If there was a more independent and broader sense of what the right metrics were to ensure healthy diets, healthy populations, healthy land use, and healthy profits for the farmer, that is really the first step in trying to push for the better solutions.”
Gustafson—who established the 30 Project to examine the last 30 years of the food industry—said that part of the reason why current food metrics are resistant to change is that corporations now dominate the research.
“During the 1980s in particular, when a lot of public funding for basic agriculture and nutrition research was cut, the groups that came in to fill the gap were companies who—while sometimes they do great research—often worked with their own goals in mind,” she said.
Today, few researchers truly take a nonbiased approach to agriculture innovations, and Food Tank wants to change that. The organization aims to be a clearinghouse for policy- and science-based reports that identify healthy, sustainable solutions, and it hopes to make those solutions available all over the world.
“We need to focus on things that are already working on the ground that are low cost, aren’t entirely dependent on fossil fuel resources, that are easy for farmers to implement, and where progress is already being made,” Nierenberg said. “It’s time for a different way.”
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