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Cultivating Reform: Planting The Seeds For Healing The Food System

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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In late October, the Yale Rudd Center got a visit from Olivier De Schutter, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right To Food. He began his talk, Reforming the Food Systems: Making the Transition Succeed,  by painting a bleak picture. There are three areas in which our food systems are failing us, De Schutter said: ecological limits, social inequity, and nutritional outcomes.

Olivier De Schutter speaking at the Yale Rudd Center

Ecological Limits: Industrial agriculture contributes to: 1) climate change, through significant carbon emissions; 2) the depletion of fossil fuels, as most of the energy going into production is used for packaging, shipping and storing food; 3) diversity loss, as habitat is cleared for farmland and grazing; 4) degradation of the oceans, as excess nitrogen runoff from farms feeds algae blooms that create vast deadzones; and 5) depletion of phosphorous (also from overuse of fertilizer), a non-renewable yet vital mineral necessary for all plant and animal life.

Social Inequity: Reliance on processed foods from global supply chains widens the gap between abundance and scarcity. We have about 1 billion people going hungry on this planet. Absurdly, of those, about 842 million are food producers—farmers in developing countries.


Nutritional Outcomes: Even as hundreds of millions are going hungry or don’t know where their next meal will come from, we have about 1 billion people who are overweight. In a sad irony, said DeSchutter, we produce about 4,800 Kilocalories per person per day, worldwide, but that energy is not making it to a 7th of the world’s population.

About 300 million people on the planet are obese–a condition associated with costly health problems (this is good news for the insulin market, De Schutter mused, which in response to the growing diabetes epidemic, is growing by 6.5-7% year and expected to exceed$32 billion by 2018).

An Untenable Future

With global markets favoring a single bottom line, health, social, and ecological impacts are afterthoughts, at best. Usually, if addressed at all, these issues are simply given lip service and slapped on a package label to be used as a marketing tool (see “all natural” Naked Juice). The ways we eat and produce food cannot continue. We have to make some hard decisions soon, or change will occur whether we like it or not. As we burn through the last of our natural resources, as ecosystems collapse, as the health costs related to poor nutrition stretch economies to their limits, and as the burden of rising food prices leads to global social unrest, we will see our food system change all by itself, in ways we can’t possibly foresee. It probably won’t be pretty.

Urban farmer Travis Taylor surveys his crops


De Schutter presented a crisis that had me fully expecting him to call for drastic government intervention, massive protest and revolution. Instead, his suggestion was more subtle—a tad underwhelming, but perhaps more feasible.

De Schutter called for increased support for social diversity in individuals’ and communities’ interactions with food—practices like farmer’s markets, dinner co-ops, urban gardens, etc. He pointed out that currently it is politically and socially unrealistic to implement large-scale changes we need to address the dire problems facing us.

In an email, De Schutter wrote:

As long as the consumer is simply one small part in the large, anonymized conventional food system, he/she feels powerless to change anything, there occurs what psychologists call a “diffusion of responsibility” –nobody feels responsible because many people could do something about a situation found to be unsatisfactory – But once alternatives open up, the consumer essentially has to choose — and votes, at it were, by his/her purchasing practices. The consumer therefore must take responsibility for the situation that results from these choices, and he/she cannot ignore the consequences of those choices. This is empowering and democratizing.

No single practice will fix the problems inherent in our food systems. A farmer’s market won’t replace the canned vegetable aisle in your local Piggly Wiggly anytime soon, nor should it. But more people engaging with their food in a diversity of ways could pave the way to a social and political climate that is more amenable to change. Knowing our farmers, planting a garden, sharing fresh, homegrown food with our neighbors—these are things that remind us what food is, and what it can be. These things “transform the act of consumption into a political choice,” De Schutter wrote.

The video above depicts one such practice. I had the privelege of spending some time with Maurice Small and some of his colleagues earlier this year. The Inter-Fatith Food Shuttle (IFFFS) in Raleigh, NC is addressing a very real and immediate problem of food insecurity. But if De Schutter is right, the IFFFS may also be one of thousands of groups across the world cultivating a new crop of the very people who could help begin to mend the system as a whole.

I hope he’s right.

Patrick Mustain About the Author: Patrick Mustain is a Minneapolis-based freelance health and science writer and digital media producer. He is interested in the challenges of public health in a consumer society. He is also a co-founder and director of, an organization inviting health and fitness professionals to help reform the industry from within. He also likes sandwiches and climbing on things. You can find more of his work at his website, Follow on Twitter @patrickmustain.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 3 Comments

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  1. 1. hicks.daniel.j 12:21 pm 11/20/2013

    As I read this, De Schutter’s basic diagnoses are that “global markets [are] favoring a single bottom line, [and] health, social, and ecological impacts are afterthoughts, at best” and that any given individual “is simply one small part in the large, anonymized conventional food system,” without much power to change anything. I agree. But, for exactly that reason, I think his call for responsible consumers who “vote[], as it were, by his/her purchasing practices” is far too limited.

    First, what about food producers? Don’t agronomists and molecular biologists, farmers, grocery stores and restaurants, all play important roles in our food system? Haven’t some of their decisions led to the problems we now have, and can’t some of them help change things?

    Second, what about acting as citizens rather than consumers? We can vote, not “as it were” by our purchasing decisions, but literally, for government representatives. We can also get involved more directly in the policy process.

    And third, what about collective action? My individual choices to be vegetarian and buy organic produce won’t really effect anyone except myself. But, as part of a local food co-op (Purple Porch Co-op in South Bend, Indiana), I helped make the local food system for a small city more respectful of ecological limits and based on personal relationships between farmers and consumers.

    In short, the framework of responsible consumerism concedes too many assumptions to the “large, anonymized conventional food system,” and ignores far more effective and *genuinely* empowering and democratic things people can do.

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  2. 2. pmustain 2:17 pm 11/20/2013

    Daniel, thanks for commenting.

    I don’t think any of the examples you brought up are precluded by what De Schutter proposed. He didn’t claim (nor did I) that solutions to the broken system are limited to individual purchase choices.

    To your first point: Yes. Food producers, agronomists, etc. by all means have a role to play.

    To your second: Yes. I think (and I apologize for not making this clear) that the idea is indeed, these systems-level changes will need to take place, but to even get a majority of people to a point where they are interested in taking action such as voting, or organizing, or protesting, etc., we need more people engaged with the system. Step one is providing opportunities for that to happen, such as farmer’s markets, co-ops, etc. this lays the ground work for the kind of action you’re talking about.

    Your Third: Absolutely. The basis of De Schutter’s approach is that there are many, diverse ways in which people can engage with their food, which will be different across cultures, across communities, and between individuals. making a “political” choice at a grocery store is one of many ways that people can grow closer to their food. Broader efforts like getting city governments and communities involved in things like co-ops and farm-to table initiatives are exactly the sort of thing that De Schutter proposes will continue to strengthen a sustainable food movement.

    The video at the beginning of the post is an example of this. These are not individuals making decisions to buy organic food at Trader Joe’s. These are community leaders taking action to improve access to, and understanding of fresh, whole foods. When it does come time to elect policy makers with an eye towards repairing the food system, this community will be much more likely to get out and “vote with their votes”, which, as you point out, is exactly what we need.


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  3. 3. bucketofsquid 5:40 pm 11/22/2013

    The real solution is putting limits on greed and forcing those with unhealthy behavior completely out of society. Something like labor camps for the gluttonous. Lobotomies for the particularly greedy and exploitative.

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