An incredible thing happened last week – a young, intelligent, woman was part of an international panel of experts reviewing our relationship with food and with our planet. The report was published in a high-impact journal, The Lancet, and was the result of work undertaken by a panel of experts. The results clearly irked food groups around the world and the brunt of the criticism seemed to be levelled at the head of the EAT Foundation who partially bankrolled the report. Dr Gunhild Stordalen is a bit of an enigma – an ex-model with a medical degree and a passion for finding solutions for the world’s food crises (current and looming) who also has an active Instagram account detailing her glamorous life as Norway’s elite (in contrast, my own, non-glamorous account is full of non-human wildlife and photos of coffee).
I met Dr Stordalen at the first EAT conference in Sweden (I doubt she will remember), I have attended a subsequent Stockholm forum, the Seeds and Chips (sister event) in Milan and an EAT event in Jakarta. At each event I have been struck by the glamour and pizazz of the event, my Scot’s heritage rankles a little at this, but that soon calms down as I enjoy the depth and variety of speakers who, in reality, would not come together for a potluck conference in a small townhall. These heavy-hitters of the speaking and sustainability / food world are in high-demand and are attracted to high-profile events that will gain maximum coverage of their issues and their agendas.
The events are choreographed to perfection; international television personalities MC as one leader after another takes to the stage. The events are equally intimidating, informative, exhilarating and inspiring and I have heard world leaders, CEOS, music stars and royalty. The hashtag (and social media) game is strong; and participation by the wide variety of delegates is always enthusiastic. If you want to know what is happening, and, if you want to influence it, you need to be part of the conversation. As an aside, I was struck at the first EAT event I attended by the lack of geographical representation or interest. I don’t know if I was the only person from the Asia Pacific Region, but I certainly was the only one from New Zealand.
Since the Lancet / EAT Foundation report was published, the tabloids and ag representatives have been mercilessly lambasting Dr Stordalen for her glamourous lifestyle that seems at odds with the messages her organisation is trying to espouse; they smell hypocrisy and think that this can be enough to discredit the report.
The world is full of hypocrisy and, possibly, the food world is even worse. I can tell stories of meeting with ranchers in the US who fervently told me about how they were farming intensively to make enough protein to feed the world – who then sat a steak in front of me so large it dripped over the edge of the plate, with over 75% of it wasted. Claiming concern about feeding the world without concern about food wastage is hypocrisy. I can tell stories of ‘sustainable’ fish farming that imports large amounts of processed fish to feed the more-attractive salmon so that we can eat the type of ‘sustainable’ fish that we want, or, at a consumer level, of consumers unwilling to pay what it costs to produce fruit and vegetables because they want cheap food; or who will drive miles in their large vehicles to shop at the organic shop because it has more sustainable food. In short, we humans are hypocritical beasts and we need to look past selective pieces of the puzzle to look at food as an ecosystem.
It is worthwhile looking at the Lancet / EAT report, if for no other reason to be more informed about the raging debate than what Dr Stordalen did on her last holiday or how much her private jet is worth. In a show of defiance (or hypocrisy), I printed the 47 page report to get to grips with the findings (sorry, trees). The five strategies for transforming the food system actually made reassuring reading – starting with seeking an international commitment for a shift towards healthy diets, reorient agricultural systems to produce healthy food rather than large quantities of food (that Californian ‘protein’ ranch sprang to mind when reading that one), sustainably intensify food production when it will result in high-quality outputs, improve governance of land and oceans and, lastly, half food waste and loss.
The report does call for us to review our diet and to work towards a ‘universal healthy reference diet’ and, contrary to what the critics would have us believe, the authors do not suggest that we make this transformation overnight. In fact, the idea is that the transformation to healthy diets occurs over the next 30 years, and, while the impacts of it will differ from region to region (depending upon the baseline diet), it will result in decreased consumption of less healthy foods such as red meat and sugar. The advocacy of the diet is in part for human health along with planet health.
This post was written in part in response to some media fixation with an individual in what would appear to be an attempt to discredit an important conversation about the future of food. It was also written in part because EAT-Lancet Commission report is important and is worthy of investigation. It does raise a troubling question – who should be driving the food agenda? If it is unacceptable that an enthusiastic, intelligent, wealthy woman does then who should it be? The rise of the ‘celebrity chef’ has been an interesting phenomenon to watch but it has had limited influence on changing the food ecosystem (and we must disregard the odd bit of madness such as bone-broth for babies). Yes, school food systems have improved but that has really only impacted a small section of the food system. The other people who are vocal in trying to influence the food ecosystem seem to come predominantly from special interest groups – often representing specific food or food production methods, and we appear less likely to openly scrutinise what a lobbyist may tell us. Perhaps it is time to lose the hypocrisy and apply a universal level of scrutiny to the food debate. In the meantime, I am of the opinion that the EAT-Lancet Commission is gutsy in that it takes on the entire food ecosystem and for that, I applaud them.