You are what you EAT: so is our planet

You are what you EAT: so is our planet

The first annual EAT Forum was hosted by the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Stordalen Foundation to bring together environmental and health impacts of the food we eat. The forum was opened with the starting point that this is the first time environmental and health impacts of food are considered together.

It is time to acknowledge the fact that what we eat determines our health, and also accept that what we eat determines the health of our planet (SRC Director Johan Rockstrom, in the Guardian Food Hub blog).

Johan Rockström presents at Stockholm EAT Forum (Source:

This is an important acknowledgement, and this forum for scientists, business leaders and politicians across many fields is a crucial step. However, I think it’s important to remember that many farmers all around the world have mastered this novel integration of health and environmental stewardship long ago. Read more about the EAT forum, and what the next steps are here.

Shift from quantity to quality

There was a resounding shift of focus from quantitative to qualitative production. Many speakers emphasised the need to move away from increasing production, and work more on equitable distribution and reducing waste. A fantastic talk by Tristam Stuart from the Feeding 5000 campaign spoke about some great initiative like the Sale of Ugly Fruit and Vegetables in the UK (his TED talk on The Global Food Waste Scandal here). It would have been interesting to hear about the challenges in producing micro-nutrient rich foods in scarce areas. 

Nexus of sustainability and health

Pushing aside my disappointment that few (or none at all?) farmers, or farmer unions were represented, there were nevertheless some very interesting ‘scientific’ questions that arose in the nexus between health and sustainability. For example, it has been showed in various studies, that nuts are an important source of protein and combat heart disease and type two diabetes.

Interesting questions arise for land-use change here: How and where could we plant large scale nut forests?

At the same time, nut forests in Central Asia are going extinct, almost entirely as a consequence of agricultural modernization projects, leading to massive desertification with the loss of ancient root systems

Around 90 per cent of the fruit and nut forests in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan have been destroyed over the past 50 years (recently in The Telegraph).

The losses here are not only health and environment related, but also cultural. Nut trees play an important role in the traditional value system of many central Asian societies. Read more from Flora and Fauna.

Pathological system

“Are you happy? (asks Feike Sijbesma from DSM).

–       yes! (Audience)

Oh. Did you hear about the horrible crisis today? Where 9,000 people died?

–       no.

That’s because nobody is talking about it. 1, 2, 3, 4… 4 seconds go by and another person dies from hunger.

9,000 will die today, and another 9,000 will die tomorrow.

So, Are you still happy?”

Yet, obesity and overweight kills more people than underweight. The richest billion people in the world consume 40% of the resources.

This is the global food crisis.

We were presented this dilemma during the EAT forum plenary. This type of narrative may get people to act. It is certainly one approach, and undoubtedly a successful one if business leaders are using it.

But I found myself thinking: why should we be unhappy? I know the world is unjust and try to work everyday in small ways to reduce that inequity. But does it mean that I should be so miserable that I can’t act? To be honest, some days I am. Those days when the world feels too heavy, the problems too big, and my own contribution completely insignificant, or even worse, counterproductive. Speaking for myself, what I need  to hear are more positive stories, not horror stories.

A more important critique though, is that by always framing things in the negative, we may find solutions to those problems , but we won’t change the system in which the problems arose. Improving seed varieties may solve aspects of world hunger, but it won’t change the system which makes hunger pathological.

So back to my mantra, how we can use food as a lens to talk about global food problems: 1) Food frames problems in the positive;  2)  Food is evocative; food is more than just calories that feed us, and more than just ingredient that create a recipe. Everyone has a story, an emotion, associated with food. This is what is behind the sovereign space in which ideas are created;  3) Food is simple and levels the playing field; everyone can talk about food.  You can read more about our approach on the SIANI blog, or on my own.

As Bill Clinton said in his keynote:

“What kills people is believing that their tomorrows will be like today.”

Maybe talking about food can open up new tomorrows. George Monbiot this week wrote about how “Saving the world should be about promise, not fear.” 

Challenge: What is the sustainability of your plate?

There were inspiring examples presented for making more sustainable, healthy food, but as Gunhild Stordalen mentioned at the banquet dinner, creating healthy sustainable meals is harder than it seems. Despite massive efforts, it was still easy to find fault with the mostly meat/fish based food served at lunch, snacks and dinner, or in the tiny plastic pots of Moroccan blueberries. I don’t bring this up a critique to the Forum organizers, but rather as an example that even for the most conscientious and rich consumers, selecting sustainable options is very difficult. Maybe a good starting point would be actually assessing the sustainability on our own plates.

Talking in Silos

Jonas Ghar Stor, Foreign Minister of Norway, spoke of the failure of politics to break the silos of themes that we are tied to. Dr. David Nabarro, Special representative of the UN Secretary General for food security and nutrition said you can’t divide development into clean scenarios, like what happened with the MDGs. Vandana Shiva, speaking as quantum physicist spoke of the principle of non-seperatability, claimed we are a on a downward spiral to globalised food, how we’ve moved from eating 85,000 species to a predominant 4.

Silos of action in government, policy, business and academia. We need to look to the ground, and scale up from there. For me, that’s what scalability is about. I’m excited about the next EAT Forum next year, and I’d like to see more farmers, more thinking about sustainability aspects and more innovative solutions for local, healthy sustainable food. Maybe a good starting point would be actually assessing some metrics on our own plates.

What does all of this mean for SES Link?

First of all, closing the link! This conference was consumer founded and focused. Food is already a truly integrated system. We produce what we demand, but we also demand what we produce. In many social ecological production landscapes that link is quite closed, in others, like in our supermarkets it’s not. How could analysing our food system through integrated social ecological links help us gain a more systemic perspective? The feedbacks between what we produce, what we consume and how it effects our future choices and values brings new meaning to You Are What You EAT.