HOW THE WORLD EATS—OR DOESN’T

Did you know that yesterday was World Food Day ? Yeah, me neither. I heard a sound bite about it on NPR, but it didn’t get a whole lot of press in the U.S. We’re too busy fighting the “diabesity” epidemic to give much thought to the War on Hunger. But these problems have something in common, a phenomenon called “the nutrition transition.”

Nutrition transition is what happens when a country’s population goes from not having enough food to overeating. I’d never heard this phrase till I came across it in Marion Nestle’s forward to an extraordinary book called Hungry Planet: What the World Eats. The book is a collaboration by writer Faith D’Aluisio and photographer Peter Menzel, the husband and wife team whose previous projects include Material World: A Global Family Portrait.

In Material World, D’Aluisio and Menzel provided a portrait of “statistically average” families from thirty nations, photographed with all of their material possessions.

Hungry Planet provides a similar snapshot of how people all over the world feed their families. The images are fascinating, gorgeous and sometimes grim; the text includes essays by Michael Pollan, Carl Safina, and other champions of a more sane and humane food chain. This book is the single most effective visual aid I have ever seen for illustrating the problems with our food system that plague both the developing world and industrialized nations.

Why does a child die of hunger roughly every five seconds, in this world? In short, it’s the distribution, stupid. The greatest challenge we face when it comes to how to feed the world is not how to grow enough food; in a world of about 6 1/2 billion people, we have a surplus, enough food to feed a population nearly double that number.

Famine is caused by a fatal combination of human folly and natural calamities: war, corruption, catastrophes. The United Nations created World Food Day in 1979 to draw attention to the pervasive problem of world hunger; the date of October 16th was chosen to commemorate the day the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization was founded in 1945.

The theme for this year’s World Food Day is “Investing in agriculture for food security.” What do they mean by “food security”? Here’s the FAO’s definition:

Food security exists when all people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

Note the inclusion of the word “nutritious.” We live in an era where it’s possible to be obese and yet malnourished, thanks to the proliferation of calorie dense, nutritionally bankrupt processed foods.

Hungry Planet exposes the culinary chasm between our fatty meat-marbled Western diet and the grain, legume and vegetable-based meals on which much of the world subsists. At either end of this extreme lies malnourishment, from famished refugees in Chad to a family of obese, diabetic Australians with a fondness for saturated fats.

How to achieve a happy medium? The single greatest solution to both these sad scenarios would be to encourage sustainable, local agriculture all over the world. If we could give the people in poorer nations the means to grow their own food, and persuade people in more affluent nations to shake off the shackles of our industrialized food chain and learn to appreciate food that hasn’t been pumped full of artificial flavors and a thousand corn-based by-products, we could lay the foundations for worldwide food security.

Small-scale farmers are the cornerstone, according to the FAO. But where does that leave the global agribusiness giants? DuPont and Monsanto have spent a fortune trying to spread their genetically modified seeds all over the developing world in the name of fighting famine.

Are they really out to eliminate world hunger, or are they hungry to eliminate competition over control of the world’s food supply? See for yourself; watch an excerpt from Deborah Koons Garcia’s documentary about GMO’s, The Future of Food, offered online by The Media That Matters Good Food Festival, or watch the entire film above. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t drink the Kool-Aid from the folks who brought us Agent Orange.