Our Food System is Rigged feat. Sheril Kirshenbaum | Hot Mess
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Eating
vegetables is good for you. And… wait for
it… growing vegetables for eating produces
relatively low carbon dioxide emissions. Shocking
right? No? You maybe heard that before? Hmm
okay, well what are we supposed to do for
the rest of the video then.
Hey, I’m Miriam, and I care a lot about
eating. I also care about the climate.
But turns out, actually understanding how
any of the food we eat impacts the climate
is super difficult. Because food impacts… like everything. So I got Sheril Kirshenbaum to help explain it all to me.
I’ve observed that although we often address challenges related to climate, food, water, energy, conservation and policy separately,
they are, in reality, different frames around the same story: More people. Limited resources.
I began my career woking on sea cucumbers. I was looking at how they move, and how they grew
Then I moved to work on Capital Hill and I saw that it wasn’t usually the scientists or the experts
who were working on the policy issues related to oceans, and climate, and environment, and energy
and it became clear that more of us need to be not just working on our pretty disparate specific research areas
but combining what we do to tell a bigger story.
And I’ve learned that tackling these global challenges takes more than data.
It requires understanding social norms, different perspective, and human behavior.
And that’s part of why I ended up in agriculture. Nowhere is this more relevant than in navigating our global food system.
We’ve got a lot of data backing up the sense that veggies, fruits, legumes and nuts are really good for us.
And better for the climate than diets high in meat and sugar, which, aren’t so good for us.
Producing red meat alone has been estimated as responsible for up to 30% of ag greenhouse gas emissions
because of all the land water and energy involved.
The agricultural sector is the world’s 2nd
largest emissions producer after energy.
The World Resource Institute tells us that
if you look specific at impact per gram of
beef production requires 20 times the land and creates 20 times the emissions as bean production.
But, we also know the numbers should be taken with a grain of salt,
because there is a lot of controversy over the exact math involved.
In this big report called “Food in the Anthropocene”
– which just as well could have been called
“Everything Wrong with Today’s Global
System” not as catchy a title I’ll admit..
Anyway, in this report 37 experts in nutrition,
agriculture, economics, health and government
from 16 countries describe a “universal
healthy reference diet.” They say that if
everyone ate that diet we’d avoid between
10.8 and 11.6 million deaths per year, a reduction
of 19.0 to 23.6 percent.
Their paper also says, we need to transform
what we eat AND how we make what we eat in
order to achieve the UN Sustainable Development
Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement.
Numbers aside what’s clear is that a global
transformation of the food system is needed
to feed 10 billion people over the coming
decades. But it’s not that simple.
The authors of the report, are asking for
big changes – they want us to eat less than
½ an ounce of red meat per day or about 3.5
ounces- a single serving of red meat- every
week. And that’s a lot less than many people
in the US currently consume. On average we
eat 2-3 ounces of red meat every day- in fact
the us is among the highest per capita consumers
of meat on the planet
Eating about 71 pounds of beef pork and lamb
every single year according to the US Dept
So ignoring that this “Food in the Anthropocene”
paper is 38 pages long and there are entire
journals about examining how our global food
system does and should work – eating more
veggies and less meat seems pretty straightforward,
right? It shouldn’t be that hard. But to
get the whole world eating the diet recommended
by this paper probably won’t happen.
Why? Because as-is, our global food system
in many ways forces us into making choices
that are bad for our health and the planet’s.
Because it’s so freakin’ immensely complicated.
And we learned just HOW complicated our food
system is thanks to a recent report from the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,
or IPCC, or as I like to think of it a bunch
of scientists chillin’ at the UN. We learn just how complicated our food system is. The IPCC
reports that human use directly affects more
than 70 percent of global ice free land surface.That’s
most of the land on the planet
Consider between a quarter and a third of
all primary production goes to a food.
And a quarter to a third of all food that
is produced is wasted.
By the way in the US we waste up to half of
the food that we grow.
It estimates that the value of global ecosystem
services – that’s when we place a monetary
value on all the things that the environment
provides us, is equivalent to global GDP,
and agricultural accounts for 70% of global
At a time when we’re extremely concerned
about water scarcity, all that land we’re
using is changing fast due to human activity
– and that includes food production.
Between 1850 and 2015, average land surface
air temperature has increased by 1.53°C at
nearly twice the rate oceans are warming.
The IPCC report is clear – climate change
has already impacted food security and contributed
to desertification and land degradation.
Calling this whole thing a really
big problem is probably an understatement.
And because the global food system is so complex,
and we’re messing it up in so many ways,
for this video, we’re just going to look
at two small pieces of this very big puzzle
to understand why it is so hard to make ourselves
and the planet healthier.
So here’s puzzle piece one. We’ve been
trying to make this video for well over a
year, my laptop is littered with the digital
equivalent of balled up pieces of paper covered
in the frustrated scribblings of old scripts.
Because – it is complicated and we don’t
know what we think we know about food and
nutrition. There is tons of misinformation
Michigan State University’s national food
literacy and engagement poll found that half
of Americans say they never or rarely seek
information about where our food was grown
or how was produced.
So despite our love of great instagram-worthy
breakfast tacos or so-called farm-to-table
dining, we just don’t understand much about
what we eat and that leaves a lot of room
for popular myths about diet and health.
Especially in the era of social media and
I mean think about it – most of our lives
revolve around meals, but the vast majority
of us are unengaged with and misinformed about
those production and nutrition.
Today less than 2% of Americans live on farms as the population shifts from rural areas into
cities and suburbs. We’re further removed from agriculture than ever before.
When we find our food at the grocery store or order something in a restaurant, we don’t really know what it takes
to get that meal to our table. Where it comes from, how it’s produced,
who’s involved, and what the steps are in terms of transportation, storage, refrigeration, or preparing a meal.
Not to mention what happens when we’re done, which leads to our food waste problem.
You could fill the world’s largest cookbook with all the things we don’t know about food
A whopping 37 percent of people in the US
don’t realize that all food contains genes,
even though genetically modified organisms,
aka “GMOs,” are a hotly
Plenty of research, which you can find linked
down below, finds that contrary to popular
belief, there’s no scientific link between
sugar and hyperactivity in children. That
local and organic foods aren’t always best
for our bodies, farm animals, or the environment.
And, even though 65 percent of consumers look
for the word “natural” on food labels,
it’s not a term that necessarily tells us
what’s good for our bodies.
Arsenic occurs naturally, after all, but I
wouldn’t recommend eating it.
It’s really hard to tell people to change
the way they eat I mean in my case I would
probably be following these low-carb diets
as well cause a lot of my friends and family
are. But I work in food. If I didn’t I wouldn’t
know the science and I would be looking at
social media and talking to my friends and
family and doing the things that they do because
those are the people that we trust most.
And if somehow, everyone became perfectly
informed on health science and nutrition – that’s
where puzzle piece two comes in. Even if everyone
wanted to eat planet and people-friendly foods
– we know race, ethnicity, income, and geography
all play a role in access to fresh fruits
There’s solid scientific reporting demonstrating
that food secure individuals – people who
have the means to not worry about feeding
their families – and food insecure individuals
– those who are less able to make ends meat
– view the consumption of fruits and vegetables
Food secure households where we know our next
meal is always coming from – those folks are making decisions based on taste or food prep
time, but for families that are food insecure
– those frequently consists of minorities
single parents and seniors –
that’s when the amount that that food costs plays a real roll. They’re thinking about
how soon that food will spoil, when they
have to throw it away, and also the travel
time and the accessibility of markets with
fresh vegetables and fruits.
According to the US Dept of Agriculture, nearly
12 percent of U.S. households were food insecure
at least some time during 2017, including
1 in 6 households with children.
And it would be great if we could solve the
equally daunting problems of food insecurity,
healthy eating, and a sustainable food system
simultaneously, but advocates for diets rich
in fruits and vegetables have tried a lot
of obvious things, like offering free cooking
classes, changing marketing on vegetables,
and trying to make the healthier stuff tastier.
But those strategies don’t seem to affect
behavior in lower income households, because
knowing how to cook tasty vegetables doesn’t
do a lot when they’re too expensive, far
away, or you have to choose between putting
in a few extra hours at work and cooking dinner.
While fast food and cheap meat may be worse
for our health and environment, it’s affordable,
often tastes pretty good and comes ready to
eat. For a lot of people – what’s on the
dinner table is less of choice than we’d
like to believe. Geographic location, access
to transportation, and demographics all play
a role in our dietary choices.
It’s complex and it’s difficult to address
with a single message: eat less meat.
If we don’t have a society that supports and
encourages a healthy diet telling people to
eat differently won’t change behavior and
can really only alienate certain groups.
We truly do need to transform our global
food system. We know how but we’re not necessarily prepared to do it because simply eating a
bunch of fruits and vegetables isn’t practical
for most people on the planet.
Misinformation and unequal access to healthful
foods are just two of many hurdles we’ll
have to tackle if we want to make the global
food system healthier for us and the planet.
This video isn’t anywhere close to long
enough to discuss all the forces standing
in the way of a more sustainable food system
like subsidies, cultural differences and political
power, land use, agricultural practices, media
challenges and more.
But because of all these, something that should be simple – eating healthier
foods that don’t pour carbon dioxide into
the atmosphere – is extremely difficult, if
We’re being asked to make really hard choices
about something we really want to be easy.
When we’re feeling hangry at the end of
a long day, the last thing we want to do is
feel the weight of the world’s agricultural
and food supply systems on our shoulders when
we look in the fridge or walk zombie-style
through a grocery store or read the restaurant
menu to find dinner.
If there’s one thing that’s universal
about eating, beyond the fact that it brings
basic nutrition into our bodies and keeps
us alive, it’s that it should be enjoyable.
Making sure what’s on your dinner plate
is good for the planet AND good for your body
is not easy, but it IS necessary.
To do that, we’ve got to remember that food
is more than what we eat. It’s a system.
One of the most massive ones our species has
ever constructed. And figuring out how to
change it… is a lot to chew on.