“Mom! You just don’t know what it’s like today. It was totally different when you were young.”
Let us know if this message has a familiar ring to it: your version of growing up is completely antiquated, and you no longer can relate to anything the new generation is saying, feeling or believing about the challenges of the world.
While these conversations (we use that word loosely) are happening in households around the world today, there are similar conversations bubbling about this planet of ours. At the center of them is a new generation who believes many of our food sources are not good for either consumers or the planet, leading to a generalized claim or position that our food system is broken. Period.
Among the primary drivers of these discussions are climate change and the reality that by 2050, we will go from 7.5 billion to 9.7 billion people in the world. How will we feed all of these people? Specifically, what are the approaches that can support personal health, public health policy and the health of the planet?
There are multiple recommendations out there, notably EAT-Lancet, the Green New Deal and the European Union’s Common Food Policy. There are others, but these three typically receive significant media attention. Boiled down, the arguments amount to claims that our food system is broken and advocate for significant reduction of animal agriculture and significant increase of plant agriculture – primarily fruits and vegetables.
But is this new generation correct that our food system is antiquated and broken? Is wholesale change the answer? Can it be done with our current resources? What are opposing arguments, and what are the potential unintended consequences? Does sustainability get us more choices, safer food, better nutrition, greater accessibility, more affordable foods – as we make the planet better does public health improve as well? Remember, we eat foods, not nutrients.
Our system is driven by population. Through innovation and technology, which have raised agricultural yields and boosted the efficiency of food production, our system has responded to increases in the population – that is the fundamental reason the system we have is currently in place.
Some have said that animal agriculture must go, but do we fully understand the consequences of that? There are countries where livelihoods depend on it. The suggestion itself ignores the reality that animals convert forage which humans cannot metabolize to protein which we can. They glean grasses from hills and valleys where traditional agriculture (e.g., row crops) cannot be sown and harvested. It likewise ignores the challenges it creates for public health and nutrition issues. Without animal protein, we would have to find a way to produce fatty acids like DHA and EPA as many of these fatty acids needed for good health are not produced by plants. We would also need sources for Vitamin B12 and iron – deficiencies of both contribute to several forms of anemia. Vitamin B12 is not available in plants, and iron from plant sources is of poor quality. Calcium and Vitamin D adequacy would be challenging. Even though there are plants with calcium, bioavailability is often low. Plant protein quality is generally poor except for soy, but we could learn to create complementation protein blends that meet our needs through different life stages.
That said, as with all bold ideas, there are upsides. Sodium intake would likely be reduced, and potassium intake increased, the combination of which contributes to reduced hypertension. Magnesium intake would increase, and Vitamins E, K and C would likely be acceptable. Classic B vitamins would be okay as well except for some at-risk populations, and fiber would be underscored.
Is the suggestion to significantly increase fruit and vegetable production realistic? Keep in mind the U.S. imports approximately 30% of its vegetables and 50% of its fruit, mostly from equatorial countries. These are the questions of resources. Do we have adequate land, water and energy to significantly increase fruit and vegetable production within the United States…or even the world? Let’s look at land. Most land used for animal production is not good for plant agriculture – the soil and terrain often just won’t support without extensive renovation. That’s certainly possible for some areas of the world, but it’s a challenge and an expense. We will need more scientists engaged in plant welfare – how to get plants strong enough to flourish where they do not flourish now. That strategy likely will require some level of bioengineering, a food technology that is unevenly accepted globally. It may even require some aspects of modifying plant genetics that may produce foods such as drought-resistant rice, rust-resistant wheat, blight-resistant potatoes, and virus-resistant fruits.
Further, consumers seek specific foods and dietary patterns such as organic, natural and halal. Will the food production models accommodate those patterns and choices? Also, if we look at the planet as our garden, do we have to think about ‘fresh’ differently? Are we talking about country-by-country sustainability, and does sustainable equal self-sufficient? Does this movement really reduce global malnutrition? What are the economic and health consequences among countries with limited resources?
For those who enjoy meat, most recommendations accommodate small amounts. There is enormous innovation going on in that category both in plant-based meat products and in cellular agriculture, which is using tissue culture technology to grow stem cells into muscle tissue. Many hold great hope for this area. Ironically, this innovative approach is providing consumers with more choices which they demand at the same time some are advocating eliminating many of the choices we currently enjoy. But as with any new technology, we need to do our modeling homework to see what energy and water use will look like in these systems, as well as examining the potential waste output.
Lots to think about. These are thoughts are just the tip of the iceberg. We need to throw open the doors and bring together the many areas of expertise that need to be at the table in this dynamic and important conversation. We need to do our homework. We need to have experience and excitement in the room. We need more reasoned discussion. It is our collective future.
To drive effective conversation about the challenges facing the food system, we must have the right people in the room, the best available science on all facets of the desired change, the right clear and compelling strategy to facilitate collaboration and conversation. Also required is trust – trust that allows open conversation and productive disagreement and examination of options to find common ground.
Mom’s experience and life-lessons learned will one day become astonishingly clear to the teenager. Life is a continuum of learning and if our global welfare is important, let’s come together. It’s not my planet or yours. Let’s do what it takes to get it right for all of us. The system is subject to change…changes intended to meet the emerging food and nutrition demands of a growing population. Improving our health and our planet is discussion and action that should be taken together.
Mary Christ-Erwin, Partner, Porter Novelli
Roger Clemens, DrPH, University of Southern California School of Pharmacy, International Center for Regulatory Science
John J. Goldberg, PhD, Partner, The Normandy Group and formerly Science Advisor to the U.S. House Agriculture Committee