Today is World Food Day, and it’s time to assess the prospects for the short- and long-term future of our food. As I write this, there are more than 100 million new starving people in the world since last year. As I write this people in Iceland, one of the world’s richest nations, are wondering whether there will be any imported food coming into their country. As I write this, one out of every 11 Americans — and as many as one in seven in states with high levels of poverty — require food stamps to be able to eat. As I write this the city of Houston is finally returning to normal after weeks of disrupted food supplies and hunger. As I write this food price inflation remains high while farmers are increasingly unable to get prices that cover their rising costs. We are experiencing a food crisis now, and we are only at the beginning.
There is simply no more important issue than food facing the world in the next decades. And “facing the world” doesn’t mean “something we can conveniently leave to others” — it faces each of us directly.
I want to talk here about two things: First, I want to address anyone who may still have the lingering sense that dinner isn’t really as important as how to keep transportation going or where to drill. Because dinner has long been the territory of women, as women entered the workplace in the 20th century dinner became the territory of no one. Now, we are only just beginning to realize that we do have to understand food, to be familiar with it, and to have a relationship to its creation. We are only just discovering, as Lord Byron put it, that much does depend on dinner.
The power of our food system is this. Up to 12 percent of our total fossil fuel use is linked to the food system. More than 35 percent of our total greenhouse gas emissions are linked to our food system. Our hope of controlling climate change or chance of avoiding a world in which many people simply die from lack of food access depends on the creation of a system that can withstand the coming shifts in climate, energy costs, food availability, and worldwide depression. Without basic food security, we can expect radical political change — people looking for scapegoats, governments overthrown, acts of war, violence, etc. Without basic food security we can expect to see a lost generation, hungry kids all over the world stunted developmentally, children dead, anger rising, people unable to address the coming crisis because they are too weak — their mental development was shaped by hunger, they were too hungry to learn about citizenship because they are too angry, and too hopeless because as Gandhi said, they can see God only in the form of bread. So yes, dinner is just that important.
Why mention cooking and food preservation? What not focus on growing food? There are a couple of reasons. The first is that there are already many people and organizations who focus on the production of food. The distribution of food has the attention of many groups — community gardeners, victory garden groups like Kitchen Gardens International, food and farming experts, and millions of ordinary people who are starting to see how important it is that we focus on the agricultural system. Michael Pollan wrote in this week’s New York Times about the ways that food production needs to be at the forefront of our policy initiatives.
The second reason is that we have enough food already to feed the whole world. It is true that we need to increase yields in some of the poorer places of the world, but food access and preservation are as central to ensuring food security as greater production.
I’m focusing on the quieter end of this, the aspect of food security that hasn’t as yet gotten the attention it so desperately needs. Worldwide, nearly one-third of all the food we produce is lost before it can be consumed. It is lost in the fields because there is no one to harvest it — as in some U.S. states this year due to a decline in migrant labor — or transport delays and shortages, pest damage, or lack of the right tools for low-energy food preservation.
In the U.S., millions of people suffer food insecurity in part because they do not know how to cook low-cost staple foods, or how to make use of leftovers and parts of vegetables not commonly eaten. In the U.S. our food security may well come to depend on local food systems, but most Americans who “eat local” do so only during the harvest season because they have no idea how to preserve food or to minimize loss.
In the poor world, children suffer poor nutrition and hunger because the food their parents grow cannot be preserved. They have no access to basic tools or fuel for cooking and preserving due to deforestation. In the rich world, children suffer poor nutrition and hunger because no one knows how to cook, preserve, or feed themselves, so we eat cheap, toxic, fast, and processed food at high cost.
I write a lot about growing food too, but today I want to draw attention to the urgent problem of making the best possible use of the food we do have. To minimize waste, to support the local food systems we will depend on in the new economy, to cook — that most ordinary work of human beings, which makes the difference between the normal development of children and decent nutrition and good health — and to prevent the disastrous loss of health and future, we can preserve the abundance of food we have.
This is one of the ways that everyone can take part. We can all learn to store and preserve food. We can all learn to cook. We can learn to use basic staples as our primary source of food, leaving rich foods like meats for festivals and celebratory occasions. We can share food with our neighbors and strengthen local communities when we sit down for a meal together.
We can save a bit of money on our grocery bills by eating what is local, abundant, and basic, and give that money to the increasing number of people in our neighborhoods and the world who need a helping hand just to eat, and to groups that provide appropriate techniques and technologies that allow the poor to preserve more of their food. We can share our knowledge and our techniques with others and help them out of growing poverty. We can take the appalling quantity of wasted food and eat more of it, creating greater equity in the world and reducing methane in landfills. We can come closer to the use of a fair share and leave more for others.
For developed and undeveloped nations alike, there is no question that food security will be the central issue in the coming decades. I applaud the attention that agriculture is receiving on this World Food Day, and I draw your attention to the equally urgent problem of the lack of cooking and preserving food to address food security.