How Food Can Save the World

We cannot solve the world's problems, without first solving food. Or another view: food is our best opportunity for getting our planet back on track.
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Panorama of Stockholm, Sweden
Panorama of Stockholm, Sweden

Just two weeks ago today, I was leaving one of the most enormous feasts of my lifetime. Engorged and almost bursting, I was finishing a two-day Nordic intellectual smörgåsbord at the 2016 EAT Stockholm Food Forum. A gathering of 500 of the planet's leaders in the fields of food, health and sustainability from the worlds of science, civil society, the private sector and policy -- this was a two day banquet of ideas, solutions and points of action.

The third iteration of this worldwide gathering, the concept is simple genius -- my favourite kind. Bring together innovators, leaders and forward thinkers who usually never meet but are working on interrelated, global challenges -- food systems, climate change, food security, global health and sustainable development. Put them in one room and get them to share ideas, share stories and hopefully reshape the broken systems driving our planetary shortcomings.

Jamie Oliver talked of a Food Revolution; Michael Pollan challenged the culture of food waste; Dr Francesco Branca of the World Health Organization called on the United Nations Decade of Action on Nutrition; Mark Watts presented a new urban blueprint for planetary and human health; and of course EAT Founder Dr. Gunhild Stordalen challenged the entire globe to step up, step out of our comfort zone, and cook up something new.

To summarize this two-day long lunch in a thousand words is impossible -- but instead I will provide a tasting menu of take-aways.

Here are just four game-changing ideas from Eating in Stockholm.

1. Accept complexity.

The world is complex -- beyond imagination. As someone who works at the global level in health, it is clearer every day that I know less and less. The world is more complex and interconnected than I had ever thought -- or could even imagine. Whether it's health, or food systems, or cities, or climate change -- each of these is a lifetime of understanding and yet each of these are evolving every day, and interconnected in every way.

We cannot try to understand everything, or even understand the complexity itself. We must simply accept this and instead of talking about complexity, or worse being paralyzed by it, embrace it, thrive on it, be fascinated by it -- and look beyond it.

Because the challenges might be endlessly complex, but the macro solutions can be very simple.

2. Seek simplicity.

Here is the exciting part: The complexity of connections and seemingly endless noise become manageable as "super wicked" problems converge toward solutions.

Whether it is climate change, food shortages, the global obesity epidemic, water crises, ocean sustainability, even geopolitical conflicts -- many or most are interlinked and therefore present common opportunities for co-mitigation.

The best part: many of these powerful links culminate at our food system. The way we subsidize, grow, trade, cook, process, waste, and eat food is where many of these challenges are born, amplify, globalize -- and where their solutions also lie.

In this context, we must seek these converging solutions and scale them.

Simple messages like "zero waste." We throw away or lose one-in-three mouthfuls of food each day, worldwide. Food that takes money to grow that could otherwise drive economic development and pull millions out of poverty. Food that takes water to thrive, that could otherwise stay in our aquifers and support biodiversity. Food that produces carbon to make, process and transport, carbon from a food system that already produces more emissions than any other sector, driving dangerous climate change. Seafood that could continue to sustain the ecosystems of the planet's oceans. And food that could be feeding the half a billion on our planet that go hungry each day.

The message is not about solving the 10 greatest challenges, it is simple: Zero waste. The rest will then come. And this is just one example.

3. Leverage connections.

From overwhelming complexity, to converging and focused solutions. Building on the macro links, we must next find points and platforms for driving implementation. At the EAT forum, three came through loud and clear.

The first is cities. More than half the world now lives in cities, for the first time in human history. While they may be a driver for many of the aforementioned problems, having large numbers of humans in a small space also presents profound opportunities. Through the C40 network, EAT is launching an urban food network. The idea is to connect forward-thinking cities from around the planet to share ideas, drive innovation and keep each other accountable to implementing food-focused solutions. Ensure cities become hubs of delicious health, not nutrition-driven diseases.

The second is the food system itself. We might think this means farmers -- and they are at the epicenter -- but it actually means much more. Bringing together those charged with setting trade and investment policies, those that produce food including the half a billion small-holder farmers on the planet, those that process and market and sell foods, those that transport it, those that cook and even us -- those that eat it. Thinking across the food chain from field to fork, or even fiscal to fork if you include the actors responsible for commodifying our food, is essential to making our food systems healthier, and sustainable. An action done in one link of the chain will have effects elsewhere, and so taking a "whole of food system" approach is key.

The last is the connection between the food system and ourselves -- diets. Through something we all did up to three times today, across 7.4 billion plates on this planet, we have an unprecedented opportunity for collective impact and positive change. One gram less of meat, or waste, or carbon might become 21 billion over a single daytime. We might feel like the quick fixes to our biggest challenges are beyond our reach, but maybe they're actually on our plates. Governments, organizations and individuals around the world are working overtime to find ways to build solutions into our diets, and to nudge consumers to think, talk, cook and eat more sustainably.

4. Take action today.

The final morsel of food for thought was to move from contemplation to action. It's time to quit perusing the menu, and go straight to the main course. As the United Nations declares a Decade of Action on Nutrition, as our global population moves from 50% urban to 70% urban over the coming decades, as food systems and diets become the leading risks to our planet's health, and the health of all mankind, there has never been a better -- or more crucial -- time to act.

Whether it's as an individual, an organization or a population, so much can be done today. By each of us.

Vote with your fork -- eat thoughtfully, waste less, buy food not products, limit your meat and eat a diverse range of colorful fruit and veg. Eat as a family, make time to cook with your kids, provide a flexible workspace for your employees to be able to breastfeed with confidence or finish in time to make dinner with children, encourage and support good food at the schools and workplaces around you, and use food to connect with others -- starting with your neighbors.

Finally, don't just vote with your fork -- but vote with your vote. Think about food, food policy and how food can be leveraged for collective gain when next you're at the polls. If those you can vote for aren't yet talking sustainable, healthy diets -- they soon will be. The biggest change will come through strong, effective policy to change the food environments and dietary determinants.

Food is our most powerful narrative.

When we look across our major global challenges -- and we have some very serious ones -- it can seem overwhelmingly complex to the point we lose our appetites for action. Climate change is happening around us. Water shortages affect 330 million people in India. Two billion of us wake up every day overweight and yet half a billion continue to go hungry. The Great Barrier Reef is under severe stress. Some estimate we have more plastic in our world's oceans than fish. War and conflict seem a daily presence in our media.

The world is a buzz of depressing, seemingly hopeless, diverging challenges.

But I challenge you.

Look beyond the buzz. Don't be distracted from the micro, look at the bigger picture. What becomes clear?

All of these challenges relate back to something simple. Something many of us enjoy every day. Something we all seek, obsess over, photograph and devour.


Over-consumed, often wasted, poorly managed and needlessly unhealthy. We cannot solve the world's problems, without first solving food. Or another view: food is our best opportunity for getting our planet back on track.

Bon appétit.

This column post was written by Dr Alessandro Demaio in his personal capacity. The views, opinions and positions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of any third party. Additionally, those providing comments on this blogs are doing so in their personal capacity, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or positions of the author.

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