At the Center for a Livable Future we explore how public health, diet, food production, and the environment shape our daily lives and our future, and how they face constant pressures from population growth, lack of equity, resource depletion, and climate disruption. Our work is driven by the certainty that we must understand these relationships—and how best to synchronize our actions to keep them in balance as we build a truly livable future.
Western diets tend to skimp on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, while being heavy on meat and refined carbohydrates, and saturated fats. The result? An increase in obesity and an increase in rates of chronic disease such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
The world's food production apparatus is a complex system, one that has undergone remarkable consolidation in a short period of time. The industrialization of agriculture has delivered vast amounts of "cheap" food to much of the world's growing population, but it has yielded negative consequences for health, the environment, social justice, animal welfare, and rural communities. Small farms that grow diverse crops and livestock have been supplanted by industrial farms that degrade the soil, air and water, and compromise the long-term viability of the food supply. A new and more sustainable evolution approach to food production must be based on ecological principles and safe applications of new technologies in order to feed the world's large and growing population.
The public's health is greatly influenced by food how we produce it, and how we consume it. The inequities in these systems have resulted in an odd imbalance: globally, 1 billion humans are malnourished, while another 1 billion are overweight or obese. Our industrialized food systems is also linked to air and water pollution, occupational safety, the health of rural communities, and even climate change all of which have direct implications for the public's health.
Modern food production systems often have negative impacts on the environment: pollution of rivers, streams and groundwater with animal wastes, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, soil degradation and depletion of aquifers for crop irrigation. Conventional meat production intensifies these impacts because, pound for pound, production of animal protein requires far more resources—water, energy, fossil fuels and chemicals—than a pound of plant protein. Even apart from the dangers to human health of a polluted environment, the loss of natural resources makes current production practices unsustainable.
Increasing population and high per capita consumption puts additional pressure on the environment, strains the capacity of the food production systems, and further depletes non-renewable resources. The world's population is expected to reach 10 billion people by the turn of the century. Most of that growth will occur in lower-income countries that are undergoing a nutrition transition toward higher-meat diets.
Lack of Equity
Of the more than 7 billion people currently on Earth, 1 billion do not have enough to eat and 1 billion are either overweight or obese. A sufficient amount of food is being grown now to adequately feed the world's population, yet the distribution of food is imbalanced. Ironically, most of the world's poorest and hungriest are rural farmers, 70 percent of whom live in developing nations. Political instability, reliance on international food aid, and a push for adoption of costly biotechnologies and industrialization has undermined farming economies. Support for sustainable agricultural practices and smallholder farming in the poorest rural areas can simultaneously alleviate poverty and hunger, rebuild natural resources, and grow rural economies.
Water. Oil. Soil. These natural resources are both precious and finite. The availability of water and soil is critical to growing the food required by growing world populations—and necessary for a livable future. And while our industrialized food production system depends on petroleum products—for fertilizer, for fueling machinery, for transporting and refrigerating goods—the availability of this resource is limited and perhaps "peaking." The search for alternative energy sources is paramount. Recognizing resource limitations and encouraging their wise use helps inform appropriate decision-making in the transition to a more sustainable food system.
Our global climate is acted upon by the systems we use to grow food—and as the climate changes, our capacity for growing food changes, too. As the Earth's temperature rises and weather becomes more severe, many current agricultural practices become vulnerable. In particular, the surging global demand for meat places more pressure on ecosystems and portends more extreme climate changes. In order to preserve or restore an ecological balance, and prevent further climate disruption, we need to change our approach to growing and consuming food.