From one ditch into the other

Food security will be a major challenge for the world in the next decade. Some estimates for the world population challenge the world food supply with 2.5 billion new consumers in 40 years.

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Einar Risvik

Senior Scientist
Phone: +47 913 74 880

My argument is that it is not enough to produce more food, it is essential that we have the right food.

Today the route from under-nutrition to malnutrition and overweight is very short. This will send poor people from one problem into a greater problem for society. The fact that more than one billion people lack food is terrible, and fast growth in this group does not make it more acceptable. With a world epidemic of obesity, with more than 2 billion (BMI > 27) people moving in the wrong direction, it’s a scary picture.

When WHO estimate the volume of non-commutable diseases (70 % of all deaths), they attribute 40-50 % of these to have a relationship to food, direct or indirect. When the medical world, during the Copenhagen Research Forum in January 2012, listed the seven biggest medical challenges, five of these have a strong relationship to food intake. Obesity, cardio vascular diseases, diabetes II, certain types of cancer and several types of inflammation are all obvious examples. Together these challenges represent a major proportion of all health costs, as these are the most expensive treatments. I argue that it is cheaper not to get sick, so the preventive use of food must be focused.

Growth in government health budgets are often three times the growth in national state budgets, so every year treatment of food related disease steal from all other budget posts (schools, infrastructure and social welfare). Preventive use of good nutritious food could bring budget growth for disease to a sustainable level, and we must. If health care demand half the national budget today, health care will take it all in only 25 years if the costs grow at twice the rate of society in average. Hardly a sustainable development.

In my opinion health costs in Europe already surpass countries solvency. My perception is that health costs already contribute to a reduced living standard, and is a negative amplifying spiral, therefore a major issue for sustainability. This will eventually happen in several parts of the world and add to social and class differences, eventually this must be seen as a component in social unrest in line with the effect of increasing raw material prices.

Economic growth, as we see in most of the world outside of Europe right now, provides economic muscles for more people to improve their food supply. As the cheapest food still is starch, sugars and fat, (salt and saturated fatty acids for secure preservation), this will become the bulk of the diet for the lower income groups in all countries. An excessive use of these components, also make up the main ingredient in our greatest medical challenges, diseases we cannot afford. So the road from increased buying power for the population to catastrophic health costs for society is very short.

The biggest problem, as I see this, is balance. Otherwise we go from one problem to a bigger problem. Obesity is already a problem for more than one third of the worlds’ population, growing at an alarming rate. Enough food to the growing worlds’ population is therefore not just a question about calories, but what food is provided, when and how. Money for the individual will provide buying power enough to survive, but for society it becomes a problem if the consequence is increased obesity and food related disease.

To achieve balance, price is essential. Today the backbone of price is wheat, corn and rice, and we have seen a doubling of world market price in a few years. This has driven all other prices up, as many of the other foods rely on wheat/rice/corn for their production (dairy and meat). Because of the way we eat today, demand for wheat, corn and rice is extremely high, too high. These are also the main sources of energy, but few other valuable nutritional components. Not the best food for disease prevention. A switch to right sources of nutrition is necessary and must be an integrated part of the discussion of food security and sustainable growth.

For example, other grains such as barley, rye and oat are better foods for humans, but they are now mainly used for feed. Vegetables are desperately needed to improve diets, and they do not require land use in the same way as wheat, and can be given a focus in an innovative approach. The most important element in this discussion is the marine resources. Marine foods contribute nutritionally highly adequate sources of protein and fat, and are therefore important foods. Wild marine resources are poorly administrated in the world and catch is diminishing. World agreement on strict resource management is necessary in order to maintain future catch, before they run out. Aquaculture production has even greater potential, as only 20 % of production today is according to optimal principles. But this demand government involvement and competence, another prerequisite for sufficient and sustainable food production.

For me, enough and right food for all is the most important sustainability theme, this is at the root of sustainable health care and social unrest. What can be more important?

This article has been publish as part of The Nordic way to Rio +20

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