Further Insights: The future of food – Addressing overconsumption and health

24/06/2024 Interview
profile picture of Molly Anderson

Molly Anderson


Member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) and professor of Food Studies at Middlebury College, Vermont

The way we produce food and the way we eat poses serious problems in terms of sustainable development and public health. Why and how can we change this? Qorus’ Boris Plantier interviewed Molly Anderson, member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) and Professor of Food Studies at Middlebury College, Vermont.

We consume more resources than the earth can regenerate. Is this an insurmountable problem? What are the options for adapting?

Our overconsumption of resources is a serious problem, but not an insurmountable one. It has been estimated that humanity is using 4.3 ‘Earths’. But there is a critical distinction between needs and wants. We know that the richest 1% of the population is using an extravagant share of resources and emitting more greenhouse gases than the poorest 66%. Much of this resource use is discretionary: private jets, yachts, second and third homes, etc. 

The clearest option for adapting is to determine ‘fair shares’ of resource use and publicize this widely among over-consumers. Attempts have been made to figure out fair shares of different resources. Imposing regulations on resource use (e.g., the amount of land an individual can own) and fair taxes may also be necessary. Moving toward greater equality of income will help as well; sometimes very poor people are forced to overexploit land because they are trying to survive.

It is virtually impossible to decouple economic growth from material consumption, without resorting to unproven technologies. So it will be essential to move away from expansionary economic and monetary systems to reduce the plunder of ecosystems and further impoverishment of marginalized people. The book Less Is More by Jason Hickel is a great introduction to how this can be done while achieving a more equal society. 

As well as the ecological problems this causes, medical researchers are also pointing the finger at the way we eat. Generally speaking, in many countries we eat too much and/or badly. How can we change this?

Many people resist dietary advice, believing that what they eat is a personal decision. However, all of us suffer the consequences of consuming too much – especially too much red meat, ultra-processed food, and ‘empty calories’ such as soda drinks. And we know at this point that eating better for the planet is also better for personal health. 

The solutions will require action by governments, food manufacturing companies, non-governmental organizations, and citizens. Education and the introduction of healthy foods at a young age are both key, but relatively slow interventions. Adult education can also be effective, such as Chile’s and Mexico’s practices of putting large colored or black ‘stop signs’ on foods with excessive fat, salt and calories per serving. Restricting the sales of unhealthy food – through taxation, incentivizing healthier foods, or product placement in stores – will have a much more rapid effect. 

Changing diets will require changing what is grown and manufactured – switching from mass-produced commodities for livestock feed and ultra-processed food, to fresh fruit and vegetables, which are under-produced. Confined animal feeding operations that funnel huge amounts of soy and corn into cows and pigs should be abandoned, with a premium put on grass-raised livestock.

Is the food industry an obstacle to change?

In many ways, the food industry has lobbied against positive regulations, even something as simple as recycling glass and plastic bottles for pay. And even though the food industry claims to be making progress, the voluntary commitments they argue for have been shown to be extremely weak. There is no justification for failing to regulate an industry that is sickening the public, often with deceptive messaging, and reneging on voluntary commitments.

And what about the people? Is there a willingness or even a noticeable change in the way they eat? And if so, who are these people? Do they represent a particular segment (age, gender, nationality, etc.)?

The way we eat is not static. Marketing firms point to millennials in industrialized countries, especially women, making notable changes to their diets – moving to vegetarian or more plant-based products. In my own research, I have found that customers switch to organic foods when they have small children, to prevent exposure to pesticide residues. 

However, many people have few choices in what they purchase. Either healthy foods are not available where they live, or they are priced higher than calorie-dense ‘junk’ foods, largely because of the disproportionate subsidies given to produce calorie-dense ingredients.

Is it easier to eat healthily when you're rich than when you're poor? Is it a question of money?

Sadly, it is indisputably the case that poorer people have less access to healthy foods. The primary cause of food insecurity in industrialized countries is poverty. In poorer countries, conflict, climate change and lingering effects of Covid on employment are additional contributors. However, obesity and diet-related diseases affect wealthy people as well as poor people; there is evidence that unhealthy ultra-processed foods are addictive, so food choices are not merely a function of wealth.

There's a lot of talk about seaweed, insects, synthetic meat, and foods that are rarely, if ever, part of our daily diet. Would their adoption have a positive impact and is it credible?

We should separate foods that are part of traditional diets in many societies (e.g., seaweed, crickets, grasshoppers and termites, and other non-commercial foods) from synthetic meat and products of precision fermentation. The latter are ultra-processed and use substantial amounts of energy in their production: they might have a limited role to play, but they should not be thought of as providing diverse and healthy diets. The former are highly nutritious foods outside the very narrow range of animals and foods that are produced commercially. Their adoption would have a positive impact, as long as care is taken not to undermine the supply of these foods to the societies that use them as part of traditional diets, as happened with quinoa from the Andes. As demand from industrialized countries rose, quinoa’s price went up such that poor Andeans could no longer afford it.

Is it conceivable that in a few years' time there could be a real change in the global food system? And if so, when will this be noticeable?

I certainly hope that this will happen, and it’s essential that societies completely transform their food systems because the industrialized, globalized system is completely unsustainable. It is destroying soil, water quality, fish stocks, and biodiversity; it is giving us unhealthy food that is leading to diet-related diseases and food contamination with microplastics and toxic chemicals; and with hunger on the rise, is completely failing to feed the world. At the same time, we know that producing more diverse foods in diversified farms is better for people’s health and better for the planet. We can see this transformation happening already in some communities that are localizing their food supply, regulating big food, valuing food workers, and paying fair prices for foods that are produced sustainably.

According to you, what would the ideal future global food system look like?

In my ideal future food system, everyone would have the right to food produced agroecologically, without synthetic or toxic inputs. Healthy food would be widely available and affordable, with public subsidies ensuring access for people unable to buy it. Schools would provide universal free meals of healthy, locally grown agroecological food, and teach students about the food system from an early age. Anyone wanting to grow food for their family would have access to land and resources. 

Food systems would be more localized, producing as much food as possible as close as possible to the point of consumption. Farmers, farmworkers and food workers would get livable wages, perhaps through a guaranteed basic income. Industrialized countries would import foods from places practicing this system, avoiding products from slave labor and other exploitation or from corporations that seize land and fisheries from Indigenous peoples or from communities without consent.

This ideal food system would regenerate degraded soils and restore clean water, as it provides food for everyone. This may seem like a pipe-dream, but communities are experimenting all over the world in ways to move in this direction. 

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