Yesterday marked the beginning of a new global collaboration between the EAT Foundation (EAT), Jamie Oliver Food Foundation (JOFF) and United Nations World Food Programme (WFP): one that takes aim at obesity, hunger, climate change and environmental degradation all together.
We’re in a crazy moment – we’re battling the bulge while staving off hunger. Obesity and malnutrition literally live side by side in communities, and even families, around the globe. At the same time, we’re choosing to use what precious natural resources we do have to fuel a food system that’s making us – and our planet – sick. We continue to spend our limited resources in ways that threaten our lives, and jeopardize our future generations.
By 2040, there will be approximately nine billion of us to feed. With the planet already aching under our pressure, we know this course is unsustainable.
We’re overweight – obesity has nearly doubled since 1980, with a staggering 30 per cent of us now overweight or obese. That’s nearly 2 billion people globally – including 42 million children under the age of five. The knock-on effect is an escalating epidemic of non-communicable diseases. Low and middle-income countries are hit the hardest – and are now suffering the perverse reality of ballooning obesity and undernutrition at the same time.
We’re starving – malnutrition and hunger haunt one in nine of us. It’s the reason nearly half of all children under five die prematurely. Chronic malnutrition in early life leads to stunting; preventing children’s bodies and brains from growing properly. This damage is irreversible and has huge consequences for their learning and their adult lives.
We’re wasteful – we waste enough food every year to feed the world’s hungry four times over. In rich countries, we produce more than we need and have standards in place that force good food into landfills instead of mouths. And, in low-income countries, good food perishes before it can get to the people who need it – largely because of limited and overburdened food transport and storage systems. It’s not for lack of food – but rather poor use and distribution. In fact, rich countries’ food waste is approximately equivalent to all of the food produced in Sub-Saharan Africa.
We’re polluting ourselves – one third of the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change are from agriculture production. The livestock industry alone accounts for almost 15 per cent of all human-caused emissions. In addition, the global food system is driving deforestation and species extinction, and is depleting marine ecosystems and fresh water resources. We are putting a stranglehold on our oxygen sources, which we rely on to absorb the excess carbon we create.
And we’re running out of band-aid solutions – the costs associated with obesity alone are astronomical, costing two trillion dollars every year. In the UK alone, more money is spent on the patchwork of issues caused by obesity than on the fire and police services combined.
With all of that weighing heavily on our minds, we have come together to start a collaboration that believes the recipe for good nutrition is equal parts what we put into our bodies, and what we put into the environment we live in. A growing body of research from across the field – published in leading scientific journals, such as Nature – suggests that healthy, plant-based diets (low in meat, animal products and processed foods) tend to be more environmentally sustainable, and vice versa. Changing what we eat – and how we produce it – is the closest we’ll get to a silver bullet for improving the health of people and the planet.
However, to unlock that great potential, we need systemic change – and action across all sectors.
This is a huge business opportunity. The food sector is guaranteed to grow. An increasingly wealthy global population is demanding access to tasty and healthy food. Business has the opportunity to work with farmers to secure their livelihoods in the long-term. They can do this by supporting sustainable agricultural practices that improve environmental impacts and increase yield of healthy produce. They can ensure that farmers, as stewards of the environment and our diets, make a fair wage in all parts of the world. By living up to their ethical and health promises, they can grow their business – and change the food system to make us healthy, not sick.
Public sector and governments must be the voice of those hit hardest. They need to create integrated policies that make sustainably-produced, real food available (and more affordable), and prevent empty calories from being incentivized. Equally, they can be a vital bridge to lead kids out of the cycle of poverty and hunger. In developing countries, locally grown school meal programmes, which buy food from smallholder farmers, benefit the entire community. They fuel local businesses, as well as healthy bodies and minds. When schools have public sector support for meal programmes, they prime kids to learn. And provide the most vulnerable kids with what is often their only meal all day. Equally, it’s essential that the curriculum teaches kids about sustainable farming practices, as it’s the only way that crucial changes to the food system will take root.
Scientists must keep us honest and focused. We are lucky to live in a world where some of the brightest minds from across different disciplines are working to improve our health and reduce climate change, in all parts of the world. They need to keep ringing the alarm bells when we don’t listen, keep credible research firmly in the public eye and keep collaborating to ensure that knowledge is shared.
All of us need to be advocates – with our voices and wallets – for these changes that we so urgently need, to make the food system we want. This is about prioritising the health prospects our children deserve, all over the world.
If we can work together to achieve the agendas we share, we know a better future is within sight.
Jamie Oliver, MBE, world-renowned chef and food campaigner
Gunhild Stordalen, Founder and President EAT Foundation
Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme