When I grew up, poor people were thin. Books, films and news coverage of famines perpetuated the stereotype.

But today, poor people are increasingly likely to be overweight. Now it’s often the rich who are the thin ones.

It’s especially the case in cities, where most of humanity lives. There, wealthy folks might be packed into yoga halls or subscription-only gyms. Post-workout, they might chow down on organo-Paleo whatnot, perhaps washed down with a zingy wheatgrass shot.

Poorer folks are still buying soft drinks and fast food, and have fewer facilities for exercise.

The result is that in many parts of the world, urban poverty now hides in plain sight; bulging waistlines often indicate abundant calories but diets scarce in the right nutrients. It means many people are hungry on the inside, but on the outside they look like they come from a land of plenty.

And that’s partly true, but it’s a land of plenty of the wrong things: cities are choc-a-bloc with cheap, calorie-dense, processed foods that are high in refined sugars, salt and fats. Overconsumption of these is linked to the boom in obesity, type II diabetes, heart disease, strokes and cancer.

Food is supposed to nourish us. So how did it end up making so many of us ill?

What went wrong

It’s a complicated thing to unravel, but here’s one argument: we’re all part of a food-industrial complex. The crops that form the basis of the foods we eat are, by-and-large, industrially produced. Then they’re passed to industrial processors, who add a bunch of polysyllabic unpronounceables – including combinations of the aforementioned unholy trinity (sugar, salt, fat) – to enhance flavour, “mouthfeel” and shelf-life. We then consume the final products in industrial quantities.

But damn, they’re tasty. They’re also readily available, devilishly convenient and wildly inexpensive compared to healthier options. In my local shop, for example, a chocolate bar is cheaper than an apple.

It’s not just humans who are falling sick; the food-industrial complex stands accused of making the land ill too. Each year, billions of hectares of agricultural land are lost to degradation, much of it due to industrial farming. Agro-chemicals have polluted rivers and aquifers. Agriculture and land-use change account for around one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions. In the last century alone, we’ve lost three-quarters of the world’s agricultural biodiversity – that’s where all our food comes from. And that’s before we consider where a lot of it then goes: to waste.

Did we go too far in accepting food as an industrial product?

Or are some of us too misty-eyed about another stereotype I picked up in childhood, that of earnest, hard-working, smallholder farmers – stewards of the land – lovingly tending each and every one of their bountiful crops? Some argue that smallholders won’t be able to feed the world’s 9.7 billion people in 2050 and that industrial systems are a proven way to provide cheap calories for all.

But while filling stomachs might be a prudent emergency response to hunger, others argue that the long-term health of both people and planet requires nutritious diets made up of a range of wholesome, affordable ingredients, produced sustainably.

The idea of sustainable food systems is gaining momentum. N.Palmer (CIAT)

The idea of sustainable food systems is gaining momentum. N.Palmer (CIAT)

Right now, for the urban poor in particular, healthy foods are often either unaffordable or unavailable. For them the choice might be between eating badly or not eating at all.

Regardless of your income, it doesn’t help that food labelling can also be confusing, or worse, misleading; that education programmes fail to inform children about good nutrition while junk food is marketed straight at them; that official guidelines on healthy eating seem to change all the time. Even if you decide to bite the bullet instead of the burger and get healthy, many cities lack safe, green spaces for free recreation; in some cultures, public exercise is frowned upon for women and girls.

These are just some of the ingredients in a big soup of challenges that’s slowly coming to the boil.

Craving change

If you think we’ve arrived at a troubling moment in the history of food, you’re in good company. Of the 169 targets that make up the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, over 60 relate in some way to the food system. It means some of the world’s most powerful people back the idea that human progress, good diets and environmental integrity depend on each other.

Also, online and on farms around the world, the idea of sustainable food systems is gaining momentum. These prioritise production and distribution of the right kinds of foods, for consumers of all shapes, sizes and disposable incomes – without wrecking the environment.

But what do these systems actually look like, and how do we get there? These are some of the big questions that EATxCali will attempt to tackle this week.

Organised by the EAT Forum and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), the event in Cali, Colombia, on Friday, will see experts pick apart the problems and provide glimpses of what a healthier, more sustainable future could look like.

EATxCali will have a thoroughly Latin American flavour. The region is coming to terms with the fact that over 80% of its population now lives in urban areas, that even ruralites are now net food buyers rather than producers, and that the skinny rich and portly poor often live side-by-side in burgeoning cities.

But the event will also connect the dots between global issues that underpin sustainable food systems, and showcase some of the solutions that already exist in the region. These range from efforts to conserve plants in gene banks, to business models that give farmers and the environment a better shake, to tackling the problems of food waste and climate change, and of course, working out what all this means for human health.

It should provide a generous helping of food for thought for a world that’s currently full of goals but still hungry for solutions.

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For more on the event, download the EATxCali event brochure.

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