How can we promote health for the greatest number of people? Danielle Nierenberg, director of Nourishing the Planet, discusses the connection between hunger and obesity.
What is the “Nourishing the Planet” project and what inspired it?
Danielle Nierenberg: Our mission is to evaluate environmentally sustainable ways of alleviating hunger and poverty. We want to highlight things that are working on the ground that have a lot of potential to be replicated and scaled up, but need more attention, more research, and ultimately more funding and investment. The project is the result of my travels to more than 30 countries across sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, looking at environmentally sustainable innovations.
What is the state of hunger and obesity in the world today?
Danielle Nierenberg: Worldwide, 1 billion people go to bed hungry, while another 1 billion suffer from health problems related to obesity. There have been several unhealthy changes in dietary and lifestyle patterns worldwide, including an increase in calories consumed, a lack of balance and diversity in diets, a lack of education about health and nutrition early in life, and a significant reduction in the amount of time dedicated to physical activity.
Meanwhile, agriculture directly contributes to food security among the world’s poorest populations, and reforms are needed to reduce poverty and hunger. In addition to those that are hungry, millions more suffer from malnutrition and a lack of a nutritious diet.
What one solution do these two problems share in common?
Danielle Nierenberg: They’re the result of a food system that doesn’t value diversity and that places more emphasis on calories and quantity than it does on nutrition. Hunger and obesity are the result of a broken food system.
Moving forward, we need to ensure that agriculture contributes to health, environmental sustainability, income generation, and food security. The specific solutions and ingredients will vary by country and region, but there are some key components that will lead to healthier food systems everywhere.
What can individuals and communities do to support sustainable agriculture?
Danielle Nierenberg: One of the simplest things an individual can do is change their diet. The Mediterranean diet, for example, includes a balanced consumption of fruits and vegetables, legumes, and grains, while limiting meat intake. This balanced diet is known to improve a person’s health, and also consists of foods that are known to have a lesser impact on the environment. This is explained in the Double Food & Environmental Pyramid, outlined in the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition’s Eating Planet. This tool links the nutritional and environmental impacts of food. Foods with the greatest impact on the environment—beef, cheese, and fish—are placed at the top, and food with the lowest impact—fruits and vegetables—are placed at the bottom.
In addition, individuals and communities can reduce the amount of food that they waste. In the United States, about 30 percent of food is wasted. Individuals can reduce their waste through better planning of their weekly meals and better food storage techniques. Restaurants and grocery stores can become involved in food recovery programs, which pick up nearly expired but perfectly edible food to distribute among food banks and other programs that feed those who are hungry.
Becoming involved in community-based nutrition and food system programs is another way to support sustainable agriculture. For example, FoodCorps, a division of AmeriCorps, is working to address childhood obesity by working in nutrition education, school gardens, and farm-to-school programs. These types of programs often partner with local organizations, and provide many opportunities to volunteer and get involved.
What does the food movement mean to you?
Danielle Nierenberg: To be honest, I’m amazed that we still need a food movement. All of the things that we’ve been advocating for—safer, healthier, more nutritious, more just, and more humane food—all seem like common sense ideas to me. I think that, in many ways, the food movement has had a bad rap for being elitist, but what we’re really fighting for is tastier and healthier food, brought to our tables in a fair and responsible way. The solutions are already out there; they just need more support from the public, farmers, the business community, and policymakers.
About Danielle Nierenberg
Danielle Nierenberg, an expert on sustainable agriculture, currently serves as Project Director of the Nourishing the Planet project for the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental think tank. She recently spent a year traveling to more than 25 countries across sub-Saharan Africa and Asia looking at environmentally sustainable ways of alleviating hunger and poverty.
Her knowledge of global agriculture issues has been cited widely in more than 3,000 major publications including The New York Times, USA Today, the International Herald Tribune, The Washington Post, BBC, the Guardian (UK), the Mail and Guardian (South Africa), the East African (Kenya), TIME magazine, Reuters, Agence France Presse, Voice of America, the Times of India, and other major publications.
Danielle worked for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic and also currently serves as the food security advisor for Citizen Effect (an NGO focused on sustainable development projects worldwide). She holds an M.S. in Agriculture, Food, and Environment from Tufts University and a B.A. in Environmental Policy from Monmouth College.More: Activism, Agriculture, Edible Education, Environmental Issues, Food and Health, Food Policy, Global Community, Industrial Food, Local Food, Politics, Sustainable Farming