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To Feed the World, Look to Climate Change Movement’s Model: EAT Founder

Food systems need to change to produce more and better-quality products. Those changes should be guided by scientific evidence and involve a wide range of partners, according to Dr. Gunhild Stordalen, founder and president of the EAT Foundation.

Written by Lara Setrakian Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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Daily wage women laborers are seen at an agricultural paddy field as they removes paddy saplings before to replant another field outskirts of the eastern Indian state Odisha's capital city Bhubaneswar on 28 January 2018. STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images

DAVOS, Switzerland – The nutrition community has a lot to learn from the climate change movement, according to Dr. Gunhild Stordalen, the founder and president of the EAT Foundation.

The world is already struggling to produce enough healthy food for everyone, as the global population continues to boom. To feed this rapidly rising number, Stordalen says nutrition experts need to borrow the climate change movement’s model. That means involving representatives from every relevant sector to set clear targets based on scientific evidence and then hold themselves accountable.

Stordalen spoke to Malnutrition Deeply in Davos about how the EAT Foundation is helping to coordinate that process.

Malnutrition Deeply: In your mind, what is the most important factor in getting nutrition on the development agenda?

Dr. Gunhild Stordalen: We need to get some basics in place to achieve sustainable development and a prosperous future. The food system is currently the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and is contributing to various environmental problems from deforestation to depletion of our ecosystems and species loss.

At the same time, poor diets are the No. 1 risk factor for disease globally and linked to one in five annual deaths. One in three people are malnourished if you include undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies. The food and beverage sector, which is the biggest economic sector in the world, is inefficient. One-third of what we produce is wasted or lost, and also we have huge inequality, including 500 million smallholder farmers that are living under $2 a day. It’s really a system that is failing both people and the planet.

Obviously, finding and studying science-based targets, similar to what we have for climate change, for the food system, and allowing the global community to agree upon that to spur action and scale it up, is a key part of what we are doing. This is why we have initiated the EAT-Lancet Commission [for Food, Planet and Health] that is working on the initial attempts to set some constitutive targets around food systems.

Malnutrition Deeply: With collaboration such a core part of your philosophy, how do you get people in organizations to work together? How do you operate as a catalyst?

Stordalen: EAT is really all about fixing our fractured food system by bringing together the stakeholders that have to be part of this huge, grand transformation we have to see towards sustainably producing healthy nutrition for our growing world population. We acknowledge that no single actor, no company, no sector can fix this alone. It’s a deadlock. We have to do this together in partnerships, and we have to build trust and work together towards a joint vision.

Food is fantastic as a convener. It unites and it excites. Everyone in the world has a relationship to food. We are all humans at the end of the day and we all eat several times a day. There are so many dimensions to the food system. It’s so complex. It’s a way to bring people together around a joint agenda and finding a common entry point. Unless we do this, and all the stakeholders that have to be part of this see the big picture and find ways to play their role and do it loud, we won’t get there.

Malnutrition Deeply: Is that primarily through the EAT Forum, or are there other ways that you are planning or currently activating this community to stir up its potential?

Stordalen: We want to be [a forum] for food, health and sustainability and to bring all the stakeholders together. We quickly realized that it’s much more important to work together on a joint agenda that touches upon parts of the same challenges, or all of them.

What we’ve been experiencing over these past four-and-a-half years since we started is that food systems are now becoming widely accepted as the approach. Rather than dealing with food-related challenges in silos, people now agree that food systems need to be dealt with as a whole. We are working with a range of different stakeholders from the World Bank, the World Business Council, to governments. We just hosted the first regional forum in Indonesia, together with the Indonesian government, to put a healthy, sustainable food system on the agenda. They have an opportunity to really build a prosperous, sustainable, resilient food system.

Malnutrition Deeply: What’s the role of business in creating and ensuring a sustainable food system? How do you work with business, specifically, to move away from current practices?

Stordalen: The private sector is key, because almost all food is produced by the private sector. It has to go from being part of the problem to being part of the solution. Like Peter Bakker in the World Business Council says, “Give business a fact, and they will act.” In many ways, science has to lead development and the future path. We at EAT don’t have any opinions beyond science. We are trying to act on the best available evidence, which is rigorous, independent and scientific, and which is not a result of political negotiations.

What we are seeing is that companies are realizing, wherever they are in the food chain, that things have to change. They can choose: Do they want to be on the forefront and be part of change, or do they want to react to whatever comes along?

On the one hand, policymakers are subsidizing grains for animal feeds and junk food. On the other end of the corridor, in the government, they are dealing with the rising healthcare costs or the environmental damages and climate change which the food production and food system partly are responsible for. We understand that business cannot do what’s needed without enabling policies and the right framework and regulation and incentives from governments.

Malnutrition Deeply: Is there a specific ask you have of companies that you wish they would do to create a more sustainable food system?

Stordalen: Be on the forefront and act on the best available evidence we have, which is the integrated science of the food system that delivers for people and the planet. Be part of the discussions, and then use your enormous impact and power for the good. Demand will come for sustainable, or sustainably produced, healthy food and food products.

Malnutrition Deeply: Are there any specific things that you want to see shift over the next five to 10 years in terms of how we produce food?

Stordalen: I want to see, specifically, that policymakers, governments start making comprehensive food and agricultural policies. You won’t tackle these challenges if you are continuing to [react] to the symptoms of a failing system. It won’t work. You have to start addressing the root causes. I think we have to actually put a price on preventing what is climate change or chronic disease or undernutrition or environmental degradation. We can do that through the lens of food.

The answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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