Thought for Food: A Student’s Perspective on Why Food is More Than What We Eat

Posted on: October 16th, 2011 by Arogya World

Elizabeth Nussbaumer writes for Arogya World on the theme of “food” for Blog Action Day 2011 (#BAD11)

Elizabeth NussbaumerI never thought I would be a masters student aspiring to study food, food security, agriculture, and its intersections with health and international development. I’ve always loved to cook, and would call myself a “foodie.” I even considered culinary school at one point, but I want to go beyond all of that. To me food is the incredible nexus of food security (including a population’s access to food and the price of food), agriculture and nutrition, and I find it remarkable how this all affects economic and political stability, the environment, health, and life.

From the micro to the macro level, food affects the environment and humans pervasively, and if the interconnected global food system is not cultivated and sustained, the impact can be catastrophic. Unfortunately, shocks to the food system are already occurring. The global commodities markets have become increasingly volatile causing food prices to skyrocket and forcing millions into extreme poverty. Many communities lack consistent access to food, and conflict, like that in Tunisia, has arisen because of food insecurity.

In late September this year, I had the opportunity to attend some of the meetings surrounding the UN High-Level Meeting on Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs). I attended as a Policy and Advocacy intern representing Arogya World, a non-profit committed to changing the course of chronic disease. NCDs include cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and chronic respiratory diseases, and their incidence has reached pandemic levels. The meeting that I found most important discussed the intersection of agriculture, nutrition, and health. During the meeting, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs released an exceptional report chaired by Rachel Nugent PhD, “Bringing Agriculture to the Table,” which emphasized the fact that the agriculture, nutrition, and health sectors do not interact enough, and need to do so because they are in fact highly intertwined. The report also provided a much-needed and innovative assessment of the ways in which agriculture affects nutrition and health.

The connections between agriculture, nutrition, and health are many.  Hunger and malnutrition are caused by improper access to food due to unaffordable prices, lack of supply, and environmental impacts, among other factors. Several NCDs are also caused by many of the same factors as well as improper nutrition: Foods with excessive levels of salt cause high blood pressure and can lead to cardiovascular disease, nutrient poor and processed foods lead to obesity which can cause diabetes and other NCDs, and beverages and snacks high in sugar cause diabetes. Proper nutrition to prevent NCDs and resolve world hunger requires adequate food production and affordable prices. If there isn’t enough access to nutritious food at an affordable price, people will either suffer malnourishment and hunger, or resort to cheap pre-made, processed foods that tend to be high in oils, sugars, and salt, further exacerbating both world hunger and the pandemic of NCDs

One of the panelists at the meeting on agriculture, nutrition, and health, was Shenggen Fan, Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). He offered some valuable ways to address the interrelated issues associated with agriculture, nutrition, and health.  Dr. Fan listed four things in particular:

  1. The need to fill knowledge gaps on the relationship between agriculture, nutrition, and health;
  2. doing no harm in future projects and initiatives by avoiding things like subsidies that exclude or shut out healthy foods;
  3. scaling-up innovations that work and not waiting to do so; and
  4. creating an environment of common language between the agriculture, health, and nutrition sectors through increased multidisciplinary education and public-private partnerships.

The world food system is complex, and a shock in one area, such as the current spike in food prices, creates impacts in nutrition, health, and economic and political stability, all of which will only be magnified by climate change. Improving the food system requires innovation, starting with agriculture. Promoting smallholder farmers in rural areas, using technology wisely, improving infrastructure (like roadways) to increase farmers’ access to markets, promoting fair trade, and farming in an environmentally sustainable way, are all key to ensuring better stability and security in food supply, access, and price.

Also, consumers require stable food prices, availability and affordability of nutrient-rich foods like vegetables and fruits, and especially consistent and reliable access to such foods.  To improve health, consumers must receive better information and education on food safety and the proper balance of calories and nutrients. This also requires participation by the food industry to make their products healthier and less harmful.

As I reflect on what I have learned in my course work at American University and from panel discussions I have attended through my internship at Arogya World, I have come to better understand the global food system and how it incorporates humans and the environment alike. It is a system that deserves better management and participation, because we all depend on it to survive.

Food is a foundational element of society and a product of the environment, it is more than what we eat. Food is our health, well-being, and security, and it requires a protected and sustainable environment. Each person needs to take more responsibility in their stewardship of the global food system. Consumers can influence this through what they choose to buy, the food industry can work to re-formulate their products and sell healthier foods, and governments can have better agriculture and trade policies.

The global food system requires maintenance, and since every single person on the planet needs food, every single person should invest and cultivate it. When you eat, also think about where it comes from, how you were able to get it and afford it, and whether it will be as accessible in the future.

For additional reading on the intersection of agriculture, nutrition, and health, please see the Chicago Council of Global Affairs’ study, “Bringing Agriculture to the Table.”