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.


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.