Eating Planet: An Interview with Ellen Gustafson

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By Marlena White

On Thursday, June 28, the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project and the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition will release Eating Planet–Nutrition Today: A Challenge for Mankind and for the Planet in New York City. Today, Nourishing the Planet highlights a contributing author of Eating Planet, and shares his views on how to fix the broken food system. If you live in NYC, you can register to attend for FREE by clicking HERE, or tune in on the 28th via livestream. We will be taking questions in real time from the audience, from the livestream, and from Twitter and Facebook.

Gustafson discusses the twin burdens of global hunger and obesity. (Photo credit: www.TED.com)

Ellen Gustafson is a social entrepreneur working for food system change to address issues like global hunger and obesity. She co-founded FEED Projects in 2007, which created a popular line of bags sold in department stores whose overall price includes a set-aside donation to the United Nations World Food Program to fund school lunch programs. In 2010, Gustafson launched The 30 Project in an effort to bring together key stakeholders to chart a healthier and more sustainable path for the food system. In an interview for the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition’s new book, Eating Planet: Nutrition Today—A Challenge for Mankind and for the Planet, Gustafson discusses how global hunger and the obesity epidemic are two symptoms of the broken global food system, and how consumers have the power to change things for the better.

Gustafson is a firm believer that there is currently enough food on the planet to feed everyone, despite the expanse of global hunger and malnutrition. “The fundamental problem continuing to cause both hunger and obesity,” she states, “is that it is difficult, almost everywhere in the world, to access nutritious foods.” Instead, calorie dense and nutrient-poor foods are the most abundant, leading to the paradox of one billion people in the world who are hungry while another billion are dealing with the health consequences of excess food intake.

The influx of these nutrition-poor foods, Gustafson points out, is largely the result of food and agribusiness consolidation in the 1980’s, which led to their overproduction and subsequent saturation into the global market. The crops favored by this consolidation—particularly corn, wheat, and soy—flooded into Western markets as highly processed foods, and into developing countries as food aid. Today, the vast expanse and intricacy of global supply chains has allowed these foods to infiltrate local markets where other food options may not be available or are unable to compete with their artificially low prices.

Meanwhile, the intensive and consolidated nature of these commodities’ production leads to environmental degradation, removal of farmers from their land, increased unemployment and migration, price fluctuations in commodity markets that poor consumers and small farmers have difficulty adapting to, and poor quality diets in both developing and industrialized settings, according to Gustafson. Through these factors, Gustafson explains how the production and distribution of low-nutrient, high-calorie foods contribute to global hunger while proliferating the global obesity epidemic. These two seemingly separate issues, she says, are actually both products of one flawed, global food system, and should be treated as such.

To address hunger and obesity simultaneously, Gustafson cites several solutions. For one, there must be a greater focus on producing fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy proteins. In addition, the anti-hunger and anti-obesity communities must coordinate their work and address their issues in terms of the overall food system, as opposed to treating them as separate and distinct problems. Developed countries must also recognize the damage done by the current food system—including its effects on human health, the environment, and the economy—and adjust their policies accordingly. Ultimately, agricultural policies should be focused on improved health and nutrition outcomes; maintaining healthy soil and water; and promoting innovation, fair jobs and fair trade.

To make these changes a reality, Gustafson says that public involvement is critical. Shifts in consumer behavior, along with policy changes, can help determine what is grown and how. Gustafson points to the influx of new entrepreneurs that are working to meet the ever-growing consumer demand for healthier, more ethically and sustainably raised foods as a sign that this approach is already working. Gustafson’s 30 Project is striving to advance these efforts by bringing together crucial stakeholders for a more expansive discussion of food system issues. It is also working to increase public engagement in food system change through activities like the ChangeDinner campaign. As Gustafson says, “If people view their table as an advocacy platform, food purchases and mealtime become great tools for social change.”

What are some other ways that consumers can help fight global hunger and obesity?

If you live in NYC, you can register to attend for FREE by clicking HERE, or tune in on the 28th via livestream. We will be taking questions in real time from the audience, from the livestream, and from Twitter and Facebook. You can also purchase your own copy of Eating Planet for $3.99 on Amazon or iTunes.

Marlena White is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet Project.

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