Quality over quantity: Changing diets and consumption

Online discussion for World Food Day sheds light on alternative ways to achieve global food security and sustainability
Goods for sale in the market of Minwoho village, Lekié, Center Region, Cameroon. Actions at the local level can impact global issues of food security and sustainability. Ollivier Girard/CIFOR Ollivier Girard

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It might come as a surprise to most people that enough food is produced globally to feed approximately 10 billion people. That’s enough to support our growing population until we reach estimated 2050 levels. How is it that we produce enough food for 10 billion people yet still struggle to feed our current population of 7 billion? Simply, world hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, not by a lack of production alone.

These issues and more were put to a global audience last week in a live Twitter Q&A session on food security and sustainability hosted by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in partnership with the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) to mark World Food Day.

The Twitter session aimed to let people discuss issues and ask questions directly to the experts who could answer them. Terry Sunderland, a leading scientist for CIFOR’s Sustainable Landscapes and Food Systems Theme, joined the discussion to challenge the idea that we need to produce more food to keep up with rising consumption levels and a growing population.

Population and production

Kicking off the Twitter Q&A, CGIAR asked: “How can we sustainably increase food production to meet the demand of a growing population?”. As the resulting discussion showed, the short answer is: we can’t. We are not just facing the problem of a growing population, but one that is increasingly consuming more resource-intensive items that require a larger proportion of the crops we produce. Studies suggest that demand for meat increases as incomes increase: as people start to earn more money they also start to eat more meat.

With countries such as India and China developing rapidly and moving away from less meat-based or vegetarian diets, we’re looking at the world’s two most populous countries moving toward Western consumption levels. This has the potential to tip world consumption beyond the point of sustainability and leave the notion of equality in the past, along with those who cannot compete with Western purchasing power.

According to a report published in the Journal of Sustainable Agriculture, “The bulk of industrially produced grain crops goes to biofuels and confined animal feedlots rather than food for the one billion hungry. The call to double food production by 2050 only applies if we continue to prioritize the growing population of livestock and automobiles over hungry people.”

The sad truth is that most of the crops we produce are used for biofuels and meat production — just because those products are more profitable than the crops are as food. The problem, then, is that the people who earn less than $2 a day cannot afford to buy these crops for food. The reality in most developed, wealthy countries is that the shelf price of a product does not reflect the actual cost of making that product. The sadder news is that people lucky enough to be from developed countries can and will out-spend the rural family living on $2 a day without even realizing it.

The quantity of available food isn’t the only issue, either. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), malnutrition affects approximately 2 billion people compared to the 1 billion that are hungry. Obesity rates are rising in every country while malnutrition rates aren’t decreasing fast enough. The way we think about our diets must change.

The forest connection

CIFOR scientists Amy Ickowitz and Terry Sunderland have been researching the relationship between forests and diets. In a recent report they showed that children who lived in communities with better tree cover had more diverse diets compared to those who didn’t. People living closer to forests have access to a wide variety of fruits, nuts and meat that can be foraged and hunted. This gives them alternative options to the staple crops that dominate diets elsewhere.

Space to change

There are changes that every person can make to live a fairer and more sustainable lifestyle. Based on a recent UNEP report on the environmental impacts of consumption and production, the UN has recommended that we must all move toward a meat- and dairy-free diet to improve equal access to food and fight the effects of climate change. This would be a drastic step for most. However, it may help to bear in mind that our demand is our vote; every choice we make on every purchase, whether it is food, fuel or technology, is a vote in support of that product. In simple terms, if you buy it, producers will continue to make it.

The problem is essentially a lack of awareness about unsustainable lifestyles. There is only so much that policy makers and government officials can do to curb demand. Really, the responsibility lands on every one of us. This is why it is essential to discuss these issues openly and inclusively on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. These platforms can reach a broad range of people, no matter where they might be. If we’re going to change the opinions and behavior of people en masse, then social media provides the space for anyone to openly discuss their concerns and ask questions directly to the people who can answer them.

In the end, the power to change the world and feed the hungry is very much in our hands and in our pockets — but the space to change may be online.

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Topic(s) :   Food security Food & diets