Think about that for a second. Despite all our advances in technology and science, and being alive in an age when unlimited information is at our fingertips, what do we really know about our last/next meal?
What is it? Where did it come from? Is it real? Was something added that shouldn’t be there? Is it even good for me? My family? Our community? The planet?
Maybe if you are part of that small fraction of the population that produces everything it consumes some of these questions can be answered with confidence. But certainly not all of them.
I should point out that I don’t have a background in the food industry, or farming, or science. Several years ago I got tired of not knowing what I/my family was eating and began asking some of these simple questions, expecting to find simple answers. When I discovered there were none — only more questions and so many conflicting or confusing “facts” — I made a decision to devote my life to the complete understanding of food and to seek out others trying to do the same.
That decision set off a series of unimaginable, eye-opening adventures throughout the world and its food systems. From the White House to the United Nations. From MIT and Harvard to grade schools in India, Italy, rural Minnesota and Boston. From NASA to Napa. From food trucks to food banks. From Dubai to Da Nang. From Vermont to Dhaka. Behind the scenes with big food companies scaling the wrong stuff to the front lines with small producers struggling to scale the right stuff.
I discovered that talking about food means talking about everything but that food truths are often personal — a fascinating, frightening paradox.
Humans possess the collective brilliance and know-how to feed ourselves in the toughest circumstances, on the grandest scale, while simultaneously using this ingenuity to undermine our future with near perfection.
Looking at food through the lens of an optimist, it’s easy to be encouraged and inspired. Centuries of leaps and bounds have led us to this point where we can more securely, cheaply and reliably feed ourselves. Innovative entrepreneurs and new ‘disruptors’ are chipping away at the corners of outdated incumbents and systems. Farmers are discovering new ways to produce food in the face of dwindling resources, poor economics, prolonged droughts, labor shortages and changing consumer demands. Bleeding-edge technologies promise to improve taste, reduce costs, enhance wellness, increase productivity and ensure maximum choice with minimal effort. Even our governments unanimously agree on how to tackle the biggest threats to feeding humanity.
Looking through a less rose-colored lens, food is scary as hell. Humankind is literally feeding ourselves to death, and at a quickening pace. More than 40% of us — regardless of age, income or location in this world — suffers from one or more forms of malnutrition (under-nutrition, nutrient deficiency, overweight or obesity). 1 in 5 deaths worldwide is now diet-related. The world’s ‘breadbaskets’ are some of the most vulnerable regions to the increasingly harsher and more unpredictable changes in climates. The average city, no matter its size or sophistication, has two days supply of perishable foods, with no backup plans in the case of disaster. While 800 million of us still go to bed hungry each night, the rest of the world throws away as much as 40% of the food we produce or buy. Within the next 5–7 years, two-thirds of the world will suffer from water shortages, while our population continues to grow. The UN estimates the economic impact of our shared food insecurities to be between $5–6 trillion/year.
In the middle of these efforts to transform food and our food systems and the catastrophic consequences food currently imposes on humans and our planet is just us — billions of individuals simply trying to make the best decisions on how to feed ourselves and those we care about.
I have come to believe that only when each and every one of us knows exactly what we are putting in our bodies — and how these decisions reverberate across our households, our communities and the planet — will we truly be able to leverage and influence meaningful change as individuals and collectively as humans. Perhaps reversing the current course we are on.
Food for thought.