Inextricably bound together by food

Based on her book Can Fixing Dinner Fix the Planet?, Jessica Fanzo explores how the foods we eat contribute to increasingly common and burdensome health problems worldwide. Banner image: Shutterstock/Olga Klochanko
Inextricably bound together by food
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This book extract, originally published 10 February 2022, is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders  from around the world and all parts of society  address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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Three of the biggest problems we face in the 21st century are (1) the burden of chronic, costly diseases such as diabetes and hypertension; (2) the consequences of climate change and natural resource degradation; and (3) the massive economic and social inequities that exist within and among nations. All three are directly related to the food we eat.

Our food systems are a wonder of the modern world. They efficiently supply almost eight billion people with enough food to survive. However, the foods we eat also contribute to increasingly common and burdensome health problems worldwide. Although hunger rates have been decreasing over the past 25 years, many people remain food insecure—not knowing when and from where their next meal will come. Many women and children still struggle with undernutrition, and at the same time, obesity and diet-related chronic diseases are rising everywhere. Concurrently, food systems are placing a growing burden on the health of our planet’s environment. They’re responsible for roughly 10–24% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which are increasing temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and acidifying the oceans. At the same time, agricultural production is susceptible to a changing climate, which is becoming increasingly challenging to produce enough food for a growing population. In choosing what to eat, we’re making decisions that have both short- and long-term equity implications for our global citizenry. Decisions on the efficiency and direction of food systems inevitably mean that moral and ethical trade-offs will have to be made. For example, can we sustain both human and planetary health? And, if not, what trade-offs are we willing to live with, who gets priority, and who will be left behind? 

Every society is impacted by food—it’s the lifeblood that ever shapes individual health and vast cultures daily. But without the right amount or quality of foods to eat, things can go very wrong very quickly, especially when climate disruption and pandemics devastate the planet. And the decisions about these foods—from how they’re grown or raised, how much packaging surrounds them, and whether or not they are thrown out—impact our planet in profound ways, from its physical environment to what it supports: the millions of plants, insects, and animals, including us.

In my book, Can Fixing Dinner Fix the Planet? I articulate some of the larger social and political systems that need to change to support human and planetary needs. No simple solution exists to create healthy, sustainable, and equitable diets. A constellation of different approaches and strategies—operating from the local level to global supply chains, targeting different people and organizations—will be necessary. Many solutions are available now and are ready to scale. Implementing these solutions will require individual awareness and advocacy, governments’ political will, and private sector investment. Having spent a lot of time in communities living in Eastern Africa and countries of Asia such as Timor-Leste, Nepal, and Myanmar, I am left with a lot of hope for what is possible in the face of immense risks. The actions the global “we” take in the next few years will set the stage for the future of food systems and the future of life on this planet. If we don’t address the planet's needs, this shared ecosystem made up of humans and a vast array of other animal and plant species will struggle to survive.

More on the Forum Network: The Climate Change & Health Nexus: What is it, why should we care and how can we all respond? by Anthony Gooch, Director, OECD Forum, OECD

This book was written while the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 spread across the globe like wildfire, giving few clues to where we still stand within the pandemic. Are we at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of its wrath? What’s become apparent is that the pandemic has shaken the global health system to its core and is having ramifications in every other sector, too, including the worldwide food and financial systems. As COVID-19 continues to survive, mutate, and spread from person to person, community to community, and nation to nation, it illustrates just how interconnected we all are—how what happens to one person can impact thousands, even millions. It also sheds light on how ultimately fragile a massive engine like the international food supply can be.

What I’ve learned over the years, and what the COVID-19 pandemic has shown me, is that we’re inextricably bound together by food. We spend a good portion of our days considering, shopping for, cooking, eating food, and cleaning up what remains. In some parts of the world, eating involves walking some distance to get water and growing or raising what’s eaten. All our collective actions and decisions have ripple effects across countries and, often, around the world. Because food is something every person interacts with every day, why is it not a higher priority for world leaders to ensure that this food nourishes citizens and is produced in sustainable ways? It baffles me.

When COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror, what will we look like as a human society? Will we be better informed, ready, and more resilient before the next pandemic or climate shock strikes?

The food security challenges we face are not trivial. As global citizens, we are at a critical world juncture amid the perils of climate change, pandemics, and political upheaval. Within the swirling chaos, the opportunities for equitable, healthy, and sustainable food systems are substantial but will require that high-quality science be translated into policy faster than ever before. I’m optimistic considering the many scientists and inventors around the world who are helping course correct the problems we face and put us on the right track. Research can bring wholesale changes to action and politics. Right this minute, many researchers are working tirelessly in field stations, farms, labs, conference rooms, and classrooms to establish clear understandings of factors that feed the problems of global food systems and institute solutions to be taken up by individuals, organizations, and private organizations companies, and nations. Politicians, business owners, and citizens of the world must then do their parts to help. This is our chance to design and construct the observable ending and move toward a more sustainable world, coexisting in accord with the planet. I’m hopeful, and I trust that human perseverance, creativity, and ingenuity will pull us through to the other side. 

Find out more about Can Fixing Dinner Fix the Planet? is available at Johns Hopkins University Press! The book is also available for free online via Project MUSE for students and other international readers.

Can Fixing Dinner Fix the Planet? is available at Johns Hopkins University Press, with 30% discounts for US, European and other international buyers from Feb 1 to April 30, 2022!

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