The Food Trade Off

Guest Author

Moritz Kettler is a marketing strategist based out of Geneva Switzerland. He has worked as a research consultant at Toronto think tank New Paradigm (now nGenera) and has been a regular contributor to Don Tapscott’s works (including Wikinomics and Grown Up Digital).

Follow Moritz (@moritzkettler) on Twitter

Read this update by Don Tapscott detailing the opening of new areas of discussion on Macrowikinomics.

The world is starving and our methods of mass food production are making people and the environment sick. How can new approaches, based on the principles in Macrowikinomics build a food industry for the age of networked intelligence?

In Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World, Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams note that one industry not analyzed in the book, but urgently warrants Wikinomics creativity and scrutiny, is food production.

The issues surrounding the food we eat are complicated and interwoven. Is the food safe from a hygiene perspective? Is the food nutritious? What is a food product’s carbon footprint? What are the living conditions of livestock? Is a genetically modified cereal wiping out other strains? I encourage readers to suggest other topics.

Due to population growth, severe drought, and global water shortages, a lot of the world is asking a much more basic question: Where is my food? Approximately 1 billion people suffer from hunger or malnutrition, which is almost 1 out of 6. It’s no wonder that over 60 countries experienced protests and riots related to food shortage last year, including in the US.

Yet at the same time 69% of Americans are overweight or obese, and a third of American children and adolescents are overweight. Who is to blame? Whose job is it to educate the population on healthy and eco-sensitive eating habits? From the point of view of the food industry, the responsibility isn’t theirs. That was the conclusion of a recent documentary film entitled Food Inc. It found that the food industry was controlled by a handful of large multinational corporations. The film argued that since the 1950s the food production industry has focused on producing quantity not quality, and that the industry’s overriding goal has been to produce the largest possible profits, even if this comes as the expense the population’s health. The industry’s goal is to keep Americans eating more and more, leading to the growth of the fast food industry. One result is that an astounding 98 million adult Americans have cholesterol levels that place them in the high-risk and borderline high-risk health category. So not only are Americans eating too much food, they are eating the wrong food.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Food Safety, the world will need to produce twice as much food as it produces today to meet global demand in 40 years. Basic economics tells us that when demand is up and supply is down, prices are going to go up. One economic indicator that signals a future increase in food prices is China’s land grab. Along with Middle Eastern countries, India, and South Korea, China is buying up land for food production in Africa and Asia. Some say this marks the end of China’s food independence, much like China’s move to buy oilfields in the 1990s marked the end of its self-sufficiency in oil, leading to the higher oil prices we see today. Also, the inputs of food production are rising steadily in cost. Natural gas is the prime ingredient in synthetic fertilizer, which the University of Manitoba estimates to be used in producing 40% of the world’s calories. Add water shortage and drought, one can see food prices being volatile and posing a serious threat to the political and economic stability of many countries.

So what’s the solution? How do we meet the world’s food demand, and its growing emphasis on meats, which is the largest drain on our resources? In theory we’ve never been more efficient at producing food. Paul Roberts, author of The End of Food, explains that US poultry output is seven times what it was in the 1960s but is two-thirds the price per pound. Beef and pork have followed a similar trend. The tradeoff, however, is diminished food safety and growing environmental damage. Our current model of meat production is quite simple: produce a ton of corn for feed, restrict the animal’s movements to avoid the burning of unnecessary calories and inject the animals with antibiotics so they can save their energy for growth rather then fighting disease. But as Roberts points out these “contained animal feeding operations” create antibiotic resistant bugs and are a major strain on the environment. The CDC estimates that 76 million Americans are sickened, 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die each year from food-borne illnesses. These facilities are estimated to cost taxpayers $38 billion a year, costs incurred for treating sewage or food-borne illness. Of course when we say that the cost of meat has declined drastically over the last 50 years these external costs are not considered. Neither is the fact that these facilities are responsible of almost a fifth of all greenhouse gases.

Unfortunately the Twitter shame diet will likely not shift the paradigm of food production and consumption in a more positive direction, but there are some promising movements. Online communities like Hyperlocavore and Landshare in the US and UK bring strangers together to share land and grow food locally. These sites allow you to locate an unused plot of land or contribute an extra green thumb in your area. Landshare was so popular in the UK that 40,000 people registered within 4 months. If gardeners grow too much for their own consumption, sites like Veggie Trader help them trade or sell the excess locally. The upside of these initiatives is the reduced carbon food print of eating local, the health benefits of eating organic and in-season food, and stimulating the local economy. On average food travels roughly 1,500 miles to get to the dinner table, and according to the EPA, food production accounts for more then one-fifth of US transportation emissions. The US Department of Agriculture is also throwing its weight behind the idea of eating local, launching a campaign in Sept 2009 called “Know your farmer, know your food.” Within the $65 million plan are initiatives to help farmers to market to local groups like schools or hospitals and ignite a national conversation on where food comes from and how it got on the plate. One of the avenues of this conversation is a USDA youtube video asking for feedback and ideas on getting people to eat locally.

Meat Free Monday is an example of people organizing to change eating habits. Supported by Paul McCartney, this initiative is engaging the public by having it participate in creating a Meat Free Monday song. The first draft was provided by Mr. McCartney himself. If the concept gets any traction the impact could be dramatic. If Americans reduced their meat consumption by 20% it would be equivalent to everyone in the country replacing their standard sedan with an ultra-efficient Prius.

However encouraging and potentially fun, it is uncertain what impact these initiatives will have on global food security. For now they signal a change in how we think about food. One of the luxuries of the developed world is having access to food from all over the world, in season or not. But what happens to a city when there isn’t a grocery store or a big box within in the entire 357 square kilometers city core, which is the case in Detroit. Riddled with empty lots and deserted city blocks, activists in Detroit see their desolated community as an opportunity – an experiment in urban farming. The city’s urban gardens have swelled from 550 last year to more then 850 today. Alan Hantz, a local businessman, plans to create 120-hectare farming pods all over the city. He intends to convert 2,024 hectares of the city’s abandoned land, making Detroit the largest urban farm in the world. The project would stimulate the broken Detroit economy and create healthy food for local residents. Of course Detroit has more space then most communities (having lost half of their population) but it will be interesting to see how this experiment plays out. Detroit’s experiment is only that, an experiment, but it’s driven by a fundamental question that we have yet to answer: How can we sustainably feed the worlds growing population? It’s not inconceivable that Detroit might once again become a showcase
for what the American future holds.