When droughts in grain-producing nations and rising oil prices drove up the cost of fertilizer and transportation in 2006 and 2007, the price of major agricultural products skyrocketed. Focusing on the economic earthquake of the financial crisis that followed, the general public tends to forget about this food crisis.
But for the Barilla family, which owns the 142-year-old pasta maker based in Parma, Italy, it was a wake-up call. The global food system was broken, the Barillas realized. Durum wheat, their raw material, was in short supply. The company realized it must take a deeper look at the food ecosystem to understand its complex dynamics.
The Barillas reviewed issues surrounding food production, distribution, and consumption—and were shocked. Droughts were causing famines. Hunger was still a threat. Even more disturbing, they realized, was a little-known connection between food production and climate change.
Guido, Luca, and Paolo Barilla responded by setting up the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition (BCFN), a think tank, in 2009. Over the past decade, the BCFN has gathered scientific knowledge and looked for concrete solutions to make the world’s food system sustainable. In 2014, the BCFN became a standalone foundation that holds forums, commissions research, empowers young researchers, and even advises the family pasta company on how it needs to change.
The focus of most climate change discussion is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from cars, trucks, and other machines powered by fossil fuels. These emissions sources are important, but another culprit is just as crucial and receives far less attention: the way we produce, transport, and consume food. Agriculture puts excessive pressure on land, water, and climate systems, accounting for almost a third of greenhouse gas emissions. “Food is part of the problem, and food can be part of the solution,” says the Barilla Foundation’s Chairman Guido Barilla, also chairman of the Barilla company.
Our broken food system
It is clear that the way food is produced, distributed, and consumed is unsustainable. We waste one third of the food we produce, and industrial agriculture is tied to rising levels of carbon dioxide, which contributes to extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, and storms. Global hunger is back on the rise after years of decline. In September 2018, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization found that some 821 million people still do not have enough to eat. At the same time, obesity is worsening: More than 672 million adults are now overweight, according to the World Health Organization.
Food also plays a role in another major political issue: migration. Although most media coverage focuses on refugees fleeing armed conflict (in the case of Syria, for example) or seeking greater economic opportunities (as is the case with Central America, Nigeria, and Pakistan), malnutrition often plays a significant role. The Arab Spring uprising of 2010 and 2011 began with higher wheat prices that led to widespread “bread riots” followed by revolutions and waves of refugees.
Working towards a solution
Companies must step up and help find solutions. The Barilla Foundation with the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (CCSI) and Santa Chiara Lab – University of Siena (SCL), will release a new study on Sep. 24 detailing best practices in the food industry and making recommendations for industry-wide solutions at the United Nation’s Sustainable Development (SDG) Summit in New York, where heads of state will gather to review progress towards the 2030 goals on reducing hunger, poverty, and pollution. Discover more and join the workshop.
Any solution to our food crisis must start with awareness. The Food Sustainability Index, developed by the Barilla Foundation with the Economist Intelligence Unit, ranks 67 countries in terms of the sustainability of their food production and consumption. It is designed to be a tool for policymakers and experts, providing replicable examples of practices and policies that promote sustainable food systems. The Food Sustainability Index compares countries using defined indicators to reveal the frontrunners, and how they succeeded, against three pillars: sustainable agriculture, nutritional challenges, and food loss and waste.
The frontrunners are developed countries, led by France, the Netherlands, and Canada. In Italy, the city of Milan aims to cut food waste by 50 percent by 2030. France uses only 68 percent of the land that could be used in agriculture and uses water responsibly.
In contrast, the U.S. and the UK are stuck in the middle. The U.S. ranks 33rd in terms of sustainable agriculture practices and 22nd for food waste, but does not make it into the top 30 for nutrition. Americans also throw away more food than anyone on the planet–209 pounds (95 kilograms) each year, per capita.
Although developed economies perform better overall than developing countries, some African countries, led by Cote d’Ivoire, Zambia, Cameroon, and Rwanda are embracing best practices in food sustainability. But many mid-income countries such as South Africa, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Russia score the worst.
What you can do
Individual diets play a major role in food sustainability. Italy’s centuries-old practice of eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, fish rather than red meat, and cereal-based products such as pasta and olive oil was christened “the Mediterranean Diet” in the 1950s. An American scientist named Ancel Keys believed this diet could help prevent heart disease. He may have been right: The Bloomberg Health index has ranked Italians as the healthiest people in the world and Italy has the highest number of centenarians in Europe.
The Barilla Foundation has taken this concept one step further by developing a Food and Environmental Double Pyramid looking at the environmental impact of the Mediterranean diet and its emphasis on olive oil, vegetables, and fresh fruit. Nutritionists recommend this diet for its health benefits, and it happens to have a low environmental impact. By returning to a traditional diet, we can eat healthily, benefitting ourselves—and the planet.