A Vision for a Resilient, Connected & Healthy Food System

I wrote this today as part of a fellowship application for healthier food systems. It’s difficult to condense such a huge idea into one page, but I managed. And while my writing isn’t amazing, I think it’s worth sharing.

In answer to the question: describe your vision for an ideal global food system.

The optimal global food system would provide for the needs of people without sacrificing the long-term health of our plant, animal, soil and water systems. An ideal food system would acknowledge the inherent value of all of life, and be unwilling to destroy other species through environmental degradation, population loss, over-consumption or poison.

Our current food system has disconnected from its source and has caused us to ignore the consequences of how we grow, raise and eat our daily meals. Almost 75% of the US population is now overweight or obese, while malnutrition contributes to more than half of the world’s cases of child mortality.

In contrast, a better global food system would demonstrate three primary qualities: resilience, relationship and what I’ll call “healthfulness.”

Resilience is the capacity of a system (and its components) to adapt, repair, and build long-term system performance. A resilient food system would have distributed means of production, storage and distribution. Food security would not lie in the hands of a few small food companies or government agencies, but in many small producers. Other hallmarks of resilience include redundancy and diversity. The 2010 flood in Pakistan killed nearly 2,000 individuals, but the long-term impact of losing more than 200,000 head of livestock and 17 million acres of fertile land is yet to be seen. A resilient food system would fulfill the needs created by crop loss due to disease and disaster.

Relationship is about understanding the interdependent connections between all aspects of the system, including its impact on other systems. Mindful production decisions would be made considering the impact of and relationship between pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, water and soil. The crops we select would account for nutrition as well as how their growth fits inside the ecosystem. Effort would be made to thoughtfully determine what, how and where we grow food. Healthy communication would exist between growers, ranchers, distributors and others involved in providing food. Decisions would be made for the greatest good for all involved.

Healthfulness is the inherent ability to contribute to the well-being and health of all participants in the system, including people, plants, animals and the soil, water and air that sustain them. Healthfulness is the expression of vitality, responsibility and contribution of all participants. An ideal global food system would measure the impact of each component, and incorporate healthy feedback loops to help participants at each system level understand what’s best, and modify behaviors that don’t support the healthfulness of the system as a whole. Here’s an example: in our current system, the value of a cow is extracted as the amount of money that can be made from her parts, in the form of milk, meat or hide. But this perspective fails to acknowledge the systems that the cow represents. The extraction of a cow into parts has led to unsafe, unhealthy, and inhumane systems of beef production. A healthy food system will acknowledge and include ALL of the parts of the system that is a cow. If any parts of that system are dysfunctional or unhealthy (such as the waste of the cow polluting the water supply, or the cow itself being unhealthy while alive, or the processing of the cow exposing the butchers to unsafe conditions), then actions would be quickly taken to repair the unhealthy parts and restore them to something more healthy.

A healthy, resilient and connected food system is possible. It will take changing the underlying systems of governance and wealth distribution, and the definitions of profit and ownership. It will mean restoring the ability of all people to participate in the growth, production and control of their food. It will require personal and community responsibility, and the creation, nurturing and sharing of better means of production and governance. We must provide better examples of how food can be provided, and share these means with all involved. Every seed planted and nurtured with long-term health in mind will make a difference, and move us closer to a more just and sustainable world.

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