Q & A

Do we need a "World Food Council"?

Hunger, obesity, and environmental damage from agricultural activity share a number of common roots. This led Yale food expert Kelly Brownell to call for a coordinated effort to find world solutions to these issues.

Q: You’ve proposed a World Food Council. Could you explain what that would be and why it’s needed?

There are three major world issues pertaining to food: hunger, obesity, and environmental impact. Each of these three concerns is covered by different government agencies, different NGOs, and different professional organizations and experts, both nationally and globally. There could be more progress made if the three worlds came together around a core set of priorities. 

Right now they're not talking. In some cases they even compete with one another. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture dumps commodities into schools for the school lunch program. This was originally designed to help correct the hunger problem, but it has contributed to the obesity issue. Another example would be the Green Revolution, which is the world's attempt to address hunger by making agriculture more productive in under-served areas. This has been partially successful in addressing the hunger problem, but has led to environmental concerns because of genetically modified crops and heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers. 

A World Food Council would bring together scientists; representatives from non-governmental organizations and government authorities like the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Bank, along with foundations that would probably be important to its funding, and industry players. The group would convene to define the major world food problems and how they might be addressed. My belief is that bringing these areas together in a way that led to significant progress would be quite powerful and visible on the world scene.

Q: Could you describe each of these issues in more detail?

There are now about equal numbers of people in the world who are over-nourished and under-nourished. It's about a billion in each category. The numbers are really quite remarkable. Hunger has been a world problem throughout human history. The number of people living in hunger goes up and down, depending on the vagaries of climate, the size of refugee populations, and the economic conditions in different countries. Unfortunately, the number is high and stays high. 

Obesity is a similarly difficult problem, with people in literally every corner of the world showing increasing prevalence. Rates have risen to the point where health ministers in countries like India and China are beginning to say that over-nutrition is a greater problem than under-nutrition. 

For both hunger and obesity, the consequences are striking. The quality of life for people who struggle with these problems is compromised. With hunger there is the stunting of physical growth but essentially every organ system in the body is compromised—the physical, psychological, emotional, and political consequences are quite severe. The consequences of obesity are similarly severe. The risk for the major chronic diseases, like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer increase dramatically as weight goes up. Healthcare costs skyrocket as people develop these diseases. About half of the costs for treating these diseases in the U.S. is borne by all of us through public funding of Medicare and Medicaid. Institutions like employers are concerned that they're getting an unfit workforce. The military is having trouble finding enough fit recruits. The consequences ripple through society. 

On the environmental front, there are grave concerns about the environmental impact of modern food production. One can look at beef as an example. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that meat production around the world is either the first or second overall contributor to global warming. The reason is that producing meat, especially beef, is very cost and energy intensive, in that energy expended (through fossil fuel resources) far exceeds the energy we get back (calories to consume). There is inefficiency in feeding grain people could eat to cattle that people then eat. There are transportation costs for shipping things long distances. The fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides used on the grains to feed the cattle are petroleum-based. And then there are the emissions from the animals themselves, which are quite considerable and contribute to global warming. 

And this is but one example. Depletion of the water resources around the world is another major concern. Two thirds of world water use goes to agriculture, and agriculture that ends in processed foods and meat production are very water intensive. There are grave concerns about what people are eating these days and how the environment is affected by it. 

Each of these things in its own right is a very important world problem, but the teams that work on each of these things—if you add up all of the people in government, NGOs, and the sciences—could have a stronger voice if they were able to work together.

There could be some areas where there will be incompatible interests. A food bank may simply be concerned about getting calories into people and be less concerned with the quality of those calories. But there could be some very important areas of agreement where everybody wins, and this is why I believe a World Food Council could be so helpful.

My hope is to convene a summit meeting here at Yale that would bring together some of the key figures to start the brainstorming process.

Q: This is early stage, but are there obvious obstacles?

Sure. There will be barriers to discussion because people have expertise in one area. It will take some time to get acclimated to what's going on in the other areas. And of course, funding will be necessary.

Another issue is whether the food industry believes this is a threat. My hope is that this would not become an issue. People around the world still have to eat, and one object is to get more food to people who need it. But the quality of the food needs to change, such that people are getting more nutrition and fewer calories in places where obesity is an issue, and the environmental costs of producing that food are minimized. 

It would be nice if this could be done in a way where industry is a collaborator rather than a combatant. The trick to that, of course, is finding ways that profits can stay stable or even increase, which I believe is possible. Part of this will involve changing the mindset in countries like America where quantity of food is more important than its quality. In some cases, industry costs will increase if quality is to improve, so people must be willing to pay for that food. 

Q: How about political issues? It's a time when any sort of new structure is looked at skeptically.

Yes. The default is not to do anything especially different so as not to upset business or to demand too much of government leaders, until a crisis occurs. If the country or the world gets to the point, and I think we are there now, where food issues are considered a major threat to the health, well-being, the stability of countries, and even the survival of the planet, people will recognize that bold action is necessary. That opens the door to new thinking.

There are estimates that the current generation of U.S. children will be the first in the nation's history to lead shorter lives than their parents did. Many medical advances are occurring, but high rates of obesity and the diabetes and heart disease that follow from it create this frightening prediction. 

Q: Is this, to some degree, a call for business to make choices that are perhaps in the greater good as opposed to a short-term bottom line?

There are many food industry practices that have not been helpful to the public health. The infiltration of soda and snack food into the schools has not been helpful. Pricing strategies which provide incentives for people to buy unhealthy food in large quantities are an issue. If you look at McDonald’s Value Meals, they tend to be the most highly processed, calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods that they have, and they are priced in a way that people want to buy large quantities of them, whereas if you buy a salad and a bottle of water, you get no special deal. If you go to the supermarket and buy a two-liter bottle of Coke, as opposed to 12-ounce cans, you'll get a better deal per ounce. But that doesn't apply to oranges, apples, or lettuce.

Defaulting to industry when they say they can police themselves has led down a bad path. There is a mile-long list of examples, portion sizes for instance. When people are served larger portions, they eat more, and portions have grown increasingly larger over the years. It would be very helpful if these things could change. 

Q: Why do you think this has to be addressed on a global level, versus a series of national food councils?
The food issues have global drivers and global consequences. Agriculture subsidy policy in the U.S. has profound effects on food prices around the world. Marketing used to be local. Now it's gone even beyond national and is global. This raises very thorny issues about who has jurisdiction over it. Trade policies have a big impact on the global food situation. The politics of war and refugee issues have a big impact on hunger. There are many issues that span the boundaries of countries, so no country stands alone.

Interview conducted and edited by Ted O'Callahan

Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health, Yale University; Co-Founder and Director, Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity