Creating the Food Systems of Tomorrow

A MAD Dispatch from Thomas Harttung, the man Time magazine calls a hero of the environment, presents a few ideas for how cooks can help improve our food systems:

For me, as a farmer and food activist, cooking is the creative process that connects the work of the farmer/gardener/herdsman/fisherman/hunter/forager with the work in all kitchens: transforming the bounties of the land and sea into feasts of honest, nutritious, seasonal, inspired food. This has been the mantra of my work for the last 20 years.

Modern gastronomy is redefining the front end of this equation at a maddening pace. But how about the back end of the story: what’s cooking out there? What’s cooking before all the stuff passes through the kitchen door of your eatery?

In many ways, the picture resembles the branded global restaurant and hospitality trade. Food is being grown, processed, and delivered to the food industry and the supermarkets of the world in an increasingly industrialized model.

Invariably, we hear that there is simply no other way to feed and clothe ten billion people on planet Earth. If you are not an agricultural expert, or a trained environmental economist, you will quickly find yourself in unknown territory, with people throwing facts and figures and thick reports at you. The system that exists has an aura of inevitability. Those who challenge the orthodoxy are deemed naïve, at best—or else reckless, or even dangerous and subversive.

We challengers need ammunition: cookbooks of facts and arguments to commandeer in discussions about the future of food. Here’s an attempt at one:

The global menu of today:

– The world today has enough food for all, and we can increase the amount of available food without further compromising the planet. It is a question of what we grow and how we grow it.

– Currently, we only turn two percent of the available energy from sunlight into food we can eat.

– The world’s marine ecosystems are severely threatened. They can rebound if the right policy decisions are taken, but the present system of fishing rights only reflects short-term commercial interests.

– In the southern hemisphere, the main limiting factors are uncertain land rights and access to local food for the underprivileged.

– In the northern hemisphere, the main limiting factors are urban sprawl and an increasing focus on feed for industrial animals rather than food for people.

– Food waste is a massive problem, especially in our part of the world. Somewhere between 25 and 50 percent of all food grown is never put to its intended use: a resource tragedy, and a threat to our survival.

– The global trade agreements in existence today tend to worsen these problems rather than alleviate them.

The unhealthy ingredients:

– These imbalances exist primarily because our dominant economic system operates through a crops and global markets paradigm.

– We continue to base the global food system on fewer and fewer monocultural crops (sugar cane, corn, soy, rice, wheat, palm oil, potatoes).

– This is an extremely risky strategy from a sourcing perspective, a disease perspective, a monopoly perspective.

– One of the key technical ingredients of the present system, Glyphosate (also known as RoundUp, the “harmless” pesticide), is coming under increased scrutiny, following indications that it causes endocrine disruption even in minute concentrations. Without RoundUp as a remedy, the industrialized food system would more or less break down.

– Four global companies—ADM, Bunge, Cargill and Dreyfus (or the ABCD)—control more than 75% of world trade in cereals and soy. This increases risk even further.

– Overuse of antibiotics in agriculture. More than 80 percent of the antibiotics used globally are given to farm animals, mainly because their living conditions make them ill. This is a tragic testimony to the way we treat our domestic animals; moreover, it engenders antibiotic resistance, a huge threat to us all.

– Excessive water use. Today’s monocultures are deeply dependent on irrigation. In fact 75 % of the world’s water use goes to irrigation. And we are exhausting the reservoirs of freshwater (lakes, rivers and below ground aquifers) at an alarming rate. Furthermore, the overuse of water in dry regions creates salty soils that loose their fertility (salination).

– On top of that, financialization of food has taken place, enabling massive speculation in food “futures”. Originally intended as a straightforward futures market for farmers and processors, this has grown increasingly volatile and contributed to sudden spikes and dips in food prices.

– The American author and food activist Eric Schlosser once remarked that the present food system looks more like a losing or lost strategy for the former Soviet Union than a winning one for the Free World.

The promising ingredients:

– Politicians around the world are increasingly aware of the negative role of the industrialized food system.

– The fact that the present system produces obesity, respiratory, and cardiovascular diseases at an alarming rate compromises the argument that we should rely on technology to feed the world.

– When exposed to the methods of modern agriculture, especially in its treatment of animals, most people react with deep disgust and anger.

– The rediscovery of wild plants and insects as a food resource. Chefs have been the torchbearers of this revolution, which has the potential to push on and on. Foraging puts a value on wilderness, but we urgently need a way to ensure that wild ecosystems are not over-exploited, as has been the case too many times in history.

The radical ingredients:

– Urban (and peri-urban) agriculture has the potential to change the way we perceive food. Though generally seen as a mere fad in the North, it is a key ingredient in tropical and subtropical food systems. More than 800 million people in the South make their living from urban agriculture.

– An 80/20 diet, wherein plants comprise 80 percent of the average daily human energy intake and animals, just 20 percent. Widespread adoption of this diet would transform the way the planet is managed, allowing a far more harmonious use and recycling of resources. Just imagine if we created a network of “80/20 farms”, where the output obeyed the 80/20 principle.

– Integrated land use strategies, where landscapes become truly multifunctional, and where synergies among diverse functions (food, fiber, biodiversity, energy, recreation, fellowship, carbon sequestration, clean water) are promoted.

– Nose-to-tail and root-to-flower Gastronomy. This approach to cooking should extend to post-meal interactions between plants, microorganisms, and domestic animals, i.e. composting, fermentation, and feeding scraps to non-ruminant animals (pigs and chickens). Such procedures could go a long way towards minimizing food waste in the future.

– True Cost Accounting. A boring name for a crucial ingredient. Most of the negative environmental, human health, and biodiversity costs of our present food system are borne not by the polluter, but by society as a whole. If all these negative outcomes were factored into the economy, a very different food system would emerge.

– Global Land Reform. In contrast to today, when much farmland is owned and managed purely for financial reasons, land reform would see landowners become fully accountable for the ecosystem functions of the landscapes in which their properties sit. Innovative solutions to future land ownership and multifunctional land use would be encouraged.

– Regional Food Sovereignty. The UN, IMF, World Bank, WTO, and G7/G20 all base their strategies and recommendations on a continuation of our present globalized, commoditized food system. Yet the prioritization of the commercial interests of global trade is undercutting the innate right of nations and societies to provide for their inhabitants without outside interference. Upholding this right, promoting regional food sovereignty, should become a new global developmental goal.

Some thoughts on the way forward:

While there are hundreds of examples of individual farms that successfully practice sustainable methods, they are also a very diverse crowd. Most of them have had to survive in a very contrarian environment and consequently have tended towards niche specialization, i.e. in vegetables, or cheese, or bread, or wine.

There aren’t many examples of farms, whether in urban or rural settings, that embrace all that a farm can be. Not in the northern hemisphere, at least. But there are grounds for hope that this will change in the near future. A number of promising initiatives are underway.

The organic movement has been very successful at establishing a standard for farm sustainability that has become a globally recognized seal of quality. The global retail value of organic food, one might be surprised to learn, is now estimated at more than 63.8 billion US dollars.

The main challenge facing the organic movement is that much of this growth has come from entering into the retail mainstream. This alliance, inevitable as it seems, is also a clear threat to organic principles. So as to retain the trust of an ever-growing constituency, the organic movement needs constantly to reinvent itself at the cutting edge of sustainable food production. This becomes more difficult when “organic” production devolves into generating “me too versions” of otherwise conventionally branded products, like Heinz Ketchup.

As chefs and food activists, you are already forcing the organic movement to “re-radicalize” itself.

There’s no better example than ants

It is estimated that the combined body weight of all the ants on the planet is the same as that of human beings. There are clearly more of them than of us—about 500 billion, at last count—and they are amazingly good at looking after themselves.

The ant lifestyle is surprisingly like ours. Ants live in large cities. They farm crops. They get into fights with their neighbors over resources, even to the point of systematic warfare.

Do you catch my drift? The collective intelligence of ants is about the same as ours. Yet we hardly ever see them! They don’t seem to have any pollution problems or obesity pandemics. They have found extremely elegant solutions to the work of being-in-the-world.

What is their secret? It’s a bit like in a kitchen: practice, practice, practice, and some strict discipline. And they have been at it for 50 million years.

I would say that it’s all about social skills. The ants are not alone in this: they belong to a group of insects commonly called eusocial insects: insects that live in large, well-organized groups (bees and termites are further examples). This group consists of only two percent of the known insect species, but more than 50 percent of the total body weight of the world’s insects.

We urgently need to learn more about how ants and creatures like them go about leaving such a small footprint on the planet.

Beacon Farms

The world critically needs sound examples of sustainable practices. A number of initiatives are underway, and an obvious role for MAD would be to profile such good examples around the world.

Some beacon farms should be left exactly as they are, serving as pure inspiration. Others should invite scientists and other experts inside and allow the work to be quantified and hopefully, replicated, so that we can move from the anecdotal to the verifiable.

Public awareness

Vast sums of money are being spent nowadays to convey messages about food choices in the industrialized world. Even in the southern hemisphere, the level of advertising aimed at increasing consumption of highly processed, generally unhealthy food products is shocking to behold. Such advertising also tends to saturate the available space, crowding more healthful messages out.

The global food industry is very keen to “let the market forces decide” people’s food choices and is very critical of any kind of political interference. Therefore, social media and word-of-mouth emerge as the most promising avenues for promoting alternative messages. Chefs and food activists have an important role to play in that field. Play that role.

Or maybe create new platforms of awareness. One thought: when people go out to eat, they anticipate reading the menu and making some choices. Once they have read through the options and ordered, they wait for their food to arrive at the table. Who can come up with a way—playful, unobtrusive, yet powerful and reproducible— to make customers more aware of the significance of their food choices while they are waiting for their food?

Catalytic philanthropy

An interesting development at present is that charitable foundations, private individuals, and forward-looking private companies are becoming involved in this work. Over the years, a huge amount of funding has been given to medical and biological research; and while these programs have dramatically boosted both the human survival rate and the level of food production, there is increasing awareness that the system is fundamentally flawed.

A number of charitable foundations around the world are making bold decisions to support initiatives in the area of sustainable food production—initiatives that would have been unthinkable just five years ago. These institutions know that they cannot change the world themselves. But by enabling radical ideas about the future of food to be realized in practice, and to prove their validity, they can help to catalyze that change.

Clarity of message

As always, we need to find compelling ways of articulating what a more promising future could look like.

Here’s a shot at it:

Call me mad, but there is something special that comes from aspiring to be truly human and intensely alive and open to the world. A shared meal is a microcosm of the potential of human civilization. Such a shared meal is simultaneously Meaningful, Artisanal, and Delicious. Together we can create a vibrant and equitable global food community that lives by these rules.

And that is what’s cooking at the back end.

Further reading:

Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat by Philip Lymbery and Isabel Oakeshott

The Third Plate by Dan Barber

In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Slow Money by Woody Tasch

Organizations and publications to look into:

Sustainable Food Trust

International Center for Research in Organic Food Systems

Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture

Rodale Institute


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