Shrinking Planet: Food

February 6, 2014

BACKGROUND

With each day, hour, and minute, our world’s population continues to grow. Beyond the numbers game of a burgeoning headcount, consumption patterns continue on the up-and-up, not only in wealthy nations, but in developing nations as well. 

The dichotomy of starvation and overconsumption looms above any conversation about food on our planet today. The consumption of cheap, fast food and prevalence of unhealthy eating habits have led to rising obesity rates and other diseases in the countries of the rich, while food insecurity and malnutrition continue to plague the poor across the world. Famine remains a common and devastating occurrence. Two very different situations, yes, but they are linked in the discussion of global strategies for food.

Collaborative efforts to engineer integrated, broad-scale responses to these complex challenges is underway – a multitude of approaches are in development including food aid reformulations to voluntary, global supply chain standards – but tough institutional hurdles continue to stand in the way. Most national and international organizations zero in on a specific subset of issues: land use, production, productivity, environmental impacts, (mal)nutrition, or health and wellness. These organizations and their stakeholders struggle to meet these challenges in the context of the globalized nature of the food marketplace, the welter of government regulations and programs, private sector supply chains and marketing strategies, and the ever quickly changing social norms around eating.

Advocates on all sides frame the choices and possible trade-offs in as they apply to the energy industry, water availability, technology, transportation, and a slew of other, interlocked issues. For example:

  •   Water for people or water for crops?
  •   Globalized and integrated food supply chains or distributed, localized and smaller scale networks for production and consumption?
  •   Feed corn or biofuel? Palm oil or lumber?
  •   Nutrition and healthier food for the wealthiest or better nutrition for all?

Any choice may be constrained by an environment that may not be able to fully feed, shelter, and hydrate us all. More optimistically, a new green revolution of technological breakthroughs in any number of industries will eliminate the need for may of these trade-offs and bypass the inefficiencies, misallocations, and complications of our current food management approaches.

TACKLING THE CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES

Voluntary supply chain collaborations, worldwide sustainability standards, corporate self-regulation, and local food access partnerships have been several efforts to recognize the challenges we face today, worked to address adverse impacts, increase efficiency, and discover breakthroughs in the current systems. Efforts like these rely heavily on collaborative dialogue, science-backed engagement, and leveraging market behaviors to achieve goals.

  •   Global dialogues have established sustainability standards for production of food commodities (aquaculture, beef, soy, palm…)
  •   Voluntary programs have increased food aid and decreased marketing of unhealthier products to children
  •   Collaborative efforts to promote healthy diets have mitigated strong conflict among large and small agricultural interests, public health and food access advocates, and major food companies

Each of these initiatives have had mixed success and scaling up an initiative from a committed core group to a broader audience and market has proven challenging for nearly all. 

Questions to consider:

  •   Which collaborations in food production, consumption, or in linking the two have worked and why do we think they’ve worked?
  •   Which pressing food problem might benefit from some kind of intensified or new kind of collaboration and why?
  •   What must key food stakeholders and professionals in collaboration do to catalyze and facilitate action?

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