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Making sure there’s enough food to go around requires more than producing it – and the changes could pay off for your waistline
While visiting my family over the Christmas holidays, I ate something unusual: A big American breakfast.
There was a huge omelette, made from at least three or four eggs, plus melted cheese and mushrooms. Around it, on the restaurant platter, sprawled a virtual mountain of fried potatoes. A couple of pieces of toast topped off the impressive pile.
Like many of the people around me, I tried my best but couldn’t finish that much food, so left some of it behind. Still, over a few meals of that kind, I managed to pack on some weight, despite getting plenty of exercise.
When we talk about hunger and food issues in the world, we often focus on the world’s poorest countries, where more than a quarter of a billion people don’t get enough food each day. But rich countries – and even many of the richer developing ones – have their own serious problems with food, including growing rates of obesity and rampant food waste.
Getting the world’s food systems sorted out is about to become hugely more important. Extreme weather and rising temperatures associated with climate change, as well as changing monsoon patterns and fast-disappearing groundwater, threaten to make growing enough food much more difficult in the years ahead, just as the number of us living on the planet continues to soar.
Look at Zimbabwe, where a vicious, prolonged drought last year has left 4.5 million people hungry, or India, where decades of heavy pumping of groundwater for irrigation now threatens the long-term viability of one of the region’s major grain-producing regions. Think California can keep growing its almond industry in the face of longer and more frequent droughts? Think again.
The need for more food around the world in turn threatens to drive more climate change, as farmers and commodity companies fell and burn their way into forests from the Amazon to Indonesia to Africa’s Congo Basin. Some plans to address climate change, aimed at holding global temperature rise to manageable levels, call for huge areas of land to be put to growing plants to turn into fuel. But what if that means further losses of forests and farmland?
A smarter way to deal with the coming pressures may be to focus not so much on boosting food production but on making it – and how we eat – smarter.
For instance, demand for meat and dairy products is growing as developing countries get richer, but those foods take much more land, water and climate-changing emissions to produce. Cutting back on those products – particularly in the rich countries that eat the most of them – could make a huge difference in the world food supply, and in our health and waistlines.
Plenty of other smart ideas exist as well. Those are some of what I and others will be looking for as judges of the Food Sustainability Media Award that is being launched this week, focused on food paradoxes: obesity versus hunger; food for people versus animals and fuel; and food waste even as starvation lingers.
Meanwhile, I’m trying to do my part. I’m eating meat less often and smaller amounts of it when I do. I’m buying from food companies with sustainable and green supply chains. And when I next visit that American omelette house, I’ll ask for a half portion – and make sure I eat every bite.
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