The Healthy Food, Healthy Planet summit, hosted by The National Journal and the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, brought together speakers and panelists to discuss healthy eating, lack of access to healthy food, obesity, biofuels, and the agricultural industry. Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Tom Vilsack was the keynote speaker and panelists included former Secretary of the USDA, Dan Glickman, Corby Kummer, senior editor at The Atlantic, Ken Cook, president and co-founder of the Environmental Working Group, and John Reilly, senior lecturer at MIT Sloane School of Management.
Luca Virginio from the Barilla Communications Group laid the groundwork for discussion in his introduction, citing three food industry paradoxes:
- Food Access vs. Food Excess
- People & Planet vs. Animals
- Replacing Petroleum vs. Feeding People
When Tom Vilsack stood to give his keynote, he changed direction to address the paradoxes Virginio broached.
More than one billion people on the planet are undernourished and 36 million die from it each year, while more than one billion people are overweight and 29 million die from food-excess related diseases annually. Vilsack talked about the U.S. humanitarian aid efforts to developing countries with food shortages, and his efforts with Secretary of State Clinton to create the Feed the Future initiative designed to empower nations around the world to concentrate on producing more and better crops.
Currently there is a tug-of-war between using resources and taxing the environment to feed livestock, and feeding people and causing less damage to the environment. Vilsack believes that we not only need to improve feed quality and streamline the process used to nourish livestock, but address other issues, like methane, a big problem in the dairy industry. The dairy industry has pledged to reduce methane emissions in its supply chain by 25 percent and is being aided by the USDA. The USDA is involved in a massive research project with 36 countries to address the impact of climate change on agricultural production. Vilsack believes that the key to solving problems is for countries to share research and collaborate to get the most out of scarce research dollars. “There is a direct correlation between investment in agricultural research and agricultural productivity.”
The USDA is heavily engaged in research into biofuels, and Vilsack contends that there needs to be a biofuels industry in this country to reduce our country’s dependence on foreign oil and its negative environmental impact. Vilsack stated that biofuels account for less importation of foreign oil in recent years, a savings of 90 cents per gallon at the pump, and a biofuels industry could bring much-needed jobs to rural America. However, he does concede that there needs to be a change in how biofuels are created. Vilsack concludes by saying, “I think the issue of biofuels versus food is not a competition, in my mind, it is a challenge to this country and to all creative people to figure out ways in which we can move away from our over-reliance on fossil fuels, to a day when we are more reliant on bio-based opportunities that do not compete with food, but complement food production.”
After Vilsack’s speech, the panelists weighed in on obesity, healthy eating, organic food, and feeding our nation’s hungry. John Reilly feels the biggest message is that “good eating for a healthy planet, is actually good eating for yourself, so people don’t have to make a huge choice. It doesn’t have to be conflict between your eating and a healthy planet.” Eating a lot of beef necessitates land, food and resources dedicated to raising cattle, while eating more grains and vegetables has a smaller impact on the environment.
Dan Glickman talked about being face-to-face with our country’s obese when he saw the crowds at Disney during a recent trip and launched a discussion about healthy eating, organic food, and the converse problem of many Americans who don’t have enough to eat. Kummer champions organic food because the decreased use of pesticides and other unhealthy practices is better for the safety of the workers. Cook would like to see more money put into our school lunch program to educate children about healthy eating and support thousands of local farmers to grow vegetables.
As a group, they all agreed that there needs to be raised awareness and significant change, and the best changemakers are our children. Healthy eating habits early in life would swing the consumer demand toward healthier, less impactful foods and lower the incidences of food-related illnesses.
Virginio wrapped up the summit saying, “I’m very encouraged that the debate about food is increasing and that people are recognizing that this is the future for all of us. Here we’ve made strides in the right direction. It’s important that all together we give an answer to these important issues.”