Thursday, June 8, 2023

Chef José Andrés Throws a Hail Mary for the Food System


Renowned chef, author, and humanitarian José Andrés has partnered with George Washington University to launch a groundbreaking initiative — the Global Food Institute.

Our food system has been in a free fall for the better part of the last century.

The mechanized slaughterhouse made its first appearance in the 1930s, paving the way for factory farming that dominates the food system today.

While millions of Americans stood in bread lines during the Great Depression, food scientists were hard at work developing some of the first mass-produced processed food products, many of which prevail today, including Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Spam, Ritz Crackers, and Kool-Aid.

Men waiting for bread in New York City during the Great Depression
Men waiting for bread in New York City during the Great Depression | Wikimedia

These advents were more than just novelty; they were progressing us to our modern food crisis where obesity, type-2 diabetes, heart disease, and disordered eating all run rampant all while factory farms house seven times the number of animals as there are humans on the planet.

The last century wasn’t just a food crisis of excess, though; more than 70 million people died of starvation in the 20th century. China, India, Bangladesh, Russia, and sub-Saharan Africa all saw widespread famines — in most cases, the results of political crises. But the natural disasters, such as the deadly twin droughts in India in the 1960s, offered a warning of what lay ahead as the climate crisis takes an increasingly destructive toll.

The Global Food Institute

While some parts of the food system have improved — food safety and access are better than ever — things have also gotten a lot worse, says Chef José Andrés, who just announced the Global Food Institute in partnership with George Washington University (GW)

“Our global food system is experiencing a crisis, brought on by systemic inequities, rampant hunger and poverty, the climate crisis, and deteriorating public health and nutrition,” Andrés said in a statement.

The new collaboration, situated in the heart of the nation’s capital and backed by the Rockefeller Foundation, aims to be a world leader in delivering solutions for food these system challenges. With the aim of influencing global policymakers, the Institute builds on Andrés’ long history of food justice and humanitarian work.

Chef Jose Andrés
Chef José Andrés | Courtesy World Central Kitchen

The Global Food Institute at GW will focus on transforming lives and improving the health of our planet at the same time —  more than 30 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are food related.

Andrés and GW say the Institute will adopt a unique and interdisciplinary systems approach across three key pillars: policy, innovation, and humanities. By uniting efforts in these areas, the Institute aims to produce “cutting-edge research,” as well as create and enhance domestic and global food policies, incubate innovative technologies and entrepreneurial efforts, and lead crucial conversations about the impact of food on humanity. Through these initiatives, the Global Food Institute says it will revolutionize our understanding of food and drive practical, evidence-based solutions.

More than a decade ago, GW and Andrés introduced the interdisciplinary course “The World on a Plate: How Food Shapes Civilization.” That partnership flourished, laying the foundation for the Global Food Institute.

african woman field
Photo Courtesy Annie Spratt | Unsplash

“In the George Washington University’s third century, we are focused on accelerating the positive impact of our interdisciplinary scholarship on society, including through innovative partnerships with visionary leaders,” said GW President Mark S. Wrighton. “We are thrilled to establish in partnership with José Andrés the Global Food Institute — a center that will create new knowledge and shape national and international progress on food system issues.”

The Institute says it will bring together scholars from every school and college at GW, alongside renowned experts, industry leaders, policymakers, and individuals from various sectors. The collective focus will center on ways to tackle the most significant challenges within the food system, including food insecurity, health, and climate change, by delivering practical, evidence-based, and creative solutions.

But is it too late?

Just last week, the World Meteorological Organization predicted the planet will exceed the 1.5°C temperature rise threshold established by the Paris Agreement by 2027. And with that rise in temperature comes the increase in natural disasters, the likes of which are already being felt around the world.

The world’s leading scientific bodies and climate experts have been calling for improvements to the food system for years to tackle the climate crisis — specifically, the methane emissions generated by the livestock sector. But new research shows methane policies are lacking. A recent review published in the journal One Earth found only 13 percent of methane emissions are being regulated by global policies even though methane emissions are increasing faster than at “any time since the 1980s,” according to the report. Methane is 25 times more potent heat-trapping gas than CO2 — with more than 80 times the warming power over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere.

Animal products are also widely linked to the global health crisis; they’re a leading cause of heart disease, obesity, and certain types of cancer (the World Health Organization classified processed meats as Group 1 human carcinogens in 2015). Yet earlier this month, the American Heart Association gave the green light to eight types of beef products including steak.

reversing climate change
Image Courtesy Lukas Hartmann | Pexels

But it’s not just animal agriculture doing damage. Nitrogen fertilizer is also a key driver of planet-heating emissions, as are pesticides and herbicides. Their increased use over the last fifty years has been linked to a number of human health issues including cancer. And while very few studies have calculated the full life-cycle of pesticides and herbicides including the production, storage, shipment, application, and breakdown, to assess their environmental impact, their very nature is problematic; 99 percent of synthetic chemicals are derived from fossil fuels.

“Scientific evidence indicates that pesticides contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions while also making our agricultural systems more vulnerable to the effects of climate change,” says the Pesticide Action Network’s (PAN) 2022-2023 report entitled, Pesticides and Climate Change: A Vicious Cycle.

Despite the impact synthetic pesticides and herbicides have on the environment, PAN says reduction of these chemicals has been largely ignored in climate change solutions. In some cases, synthetic pesticides have been presented as part of a “climate change mitigation strategy” proposed by industrial agriculture interests.

As the world saw with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine more than a year ago, the global food system is extremely vulnerable to disruption. Both countries have been top producers of wheat, and experts feared the worst.

Joseph Glauber, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, told NPR that following the invasion, “all of a sudden the concern was that you had both [countries] potentially being knocked out of the global market.” The timing of that invasion in February 2022, meant other countries had no time to adjust their production as planting is typically done in the fall.

wheat crops
Courtesy Klāvs Taimiņš | Unsplash

Climate-caused natural disasters, like the bushfires that swept through Australia between 2019 and 2020, could also devastate harvests around the world overnight. Climate change is already impacting a number of crops, according to NASA.

“Climate change may affect the production of maize (corn) and wheat as early as 2030 under a high greenhouse gas emissions scenario,” a recent NASA study published in the journal, Nature Food, found. According to that research, maize crop yields are projected to decline 24 percent, while wheat could potentially see growth of about 17 percent. Coffee, chocolate, and wine grapes are also already seeing impacts as are fruits including bananas and mangos.

Andrés, though, remains hopeful. The chef has been twice named one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People,” for his humanitarian efforts including the World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit organization he founded in 2010. And the chef says the Global Food Institute will “reshape how we think about food, break down barriers across industries, politics, and nations, and inspire and empower the next generation to develop systemic solutions that reshape the food system.”

“[F]ood has the power to solve problems,” Andrés said. “It can rebuild lives and communities, heal both people and the planet and create hope for the future, but only if we think bigger.”

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