Spotlight: FoodTank Challenges Global Food System to Improve

Danielle Nierenberg is an expert on agriculture and food and co-founder of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank www.foodtank.org. She is an expert on sustainable agriculture and food issues. She recently spent two years traveling to more than 35 countries across sub-Saharan Africa and Asia looking at environmentally sustainable ways of alleviating hunger and poverty. Her knowledge of global agriculture issues has been cited widely in more than 3,000 major publications including The New York Times, USA Today, the International Herald Tribune, The Washington Post, BBC, the Guardian(UK), the Mail and Guardian (South Africa), the East African (Kenya), TIME magazine, Reuters, Agence France Presse, Voice of America, the Times of India, and other major publications. Danielle worked for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic and also currently serves as the food security adviser for Citizen Effect (an NGO focused on sustainable development projects worldwide).

There is no doubt that the food system is broken. More than one billion people are obese, nearly one billion people go to bed hungry every night, and at least two billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. Roughly a half-century after the Green Revolution—the first systematic, large-scale attempt to reduce poverty and hunger throughout the world—a large share of the human family is still chronically without food, reliable income, and access to education. And over the last 30 years, the western food system has been built to promote over-consumption of a few consolidated commodities and has failed to be the harbinger of health as it spreads around the world. The epidemic of obesity in industrialized and developing countries alike is increasing the risks of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other maladies. Ironically, the “solution” to hunger—increasing production of starchy staple crops—has also created the problem of obesity.

In addition, we waste vast amounts of food—more than one third of all food worldwide is wasted. In the developing world, roughly 40 percent of all food goes to waste as a result of pests, disease, and improper storage. The impacts of climate change and years of disregard for soil and water health are becoming increasingly evident leading to drought and disease from Iowa to Niger. Investment in agriculture continues to emphasize quantity over quality and we need adaptation and solutions. We need to find a different way to feed the world.

Food Tank: The Food Think Tank, the new organization I co-founded, will help propel that change by fostering the growing community of voices on food, health, and environmental sustainability issues. Food Tank is bringing attention to these important issues by bridging the domestic and the global. We believe there is an opportunity to develop a better vision for the global food system and is prepared to take on challenges by helping to connect producers and consumers, policy-makers and activists, and farmers and eaters. We’re trying to bridge the major disconnect between organizations that are fighting hunger and organizations that are fighting obesity. The two groups have more in common than they think. The truth is we’re all fighting to get people access to nutritious food, no matter where we are in the world, but we need to be asking the right questions and developing the right metrics for today’s food system realities, not yesterday’s.

In a recent thirty-five country research tour across sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America, the United States, and Europe, I found hope and real progress towards better solutions for food system sustainability in industrialized and developing countries alike. By visiting hundreds of projects, talking with farmers, farmers’ groups, NGOs, policy-makers, educators, funders, journalists, and other stakeholders, I was able to see the change afoot. Agriculture can be the solution to some the world’s most pressing environmental and social challenges. Through our on-the ground-research, we have seen the impact that sustainable and diverse farming systems can have on health and nutrition, food security, and the livelihood of farmers. We can create state-of-the-art sustainable farming systems by using a combination of traditional practices that have worked for hundreds of years all over the world and modern eco-friendly technologies.

Fixing the system requires changing the conversation and finding ways that make food production—and consumption—more economically, environmentally, and socially just and sustainable. The solutions, both big and small, are out there—in market garden projects in rural Niger, on rooftop gardens in Vietnam, at research institutes in Taiwan, in European healthy school food systems, in the explosion of farmers markets across the U.S., in global food retailing initiatives that prevent food waste, and in individual communities all over the world. Unfortunately, these projects are not getting the attention and the investment they need. The science is out there, too, yet it is not getting the funding to change the metrics we use to measure agricultural success. This needs to change.