In Pursuit of Development

Can fixing dinner fix the planet? — Jessica Fanzo

Episode Summary

Dan Banik and Jessica Fanzo discuss what is meant by food systems, the success of the Green Revolution in preventing famine, the double burden of obesity and undernutrition, the role of culture in shaping our food preferences, the arguments for and against eating meat and how better policies can create better food.

Episode Notes

A complex web of factors affects our ability not only to meet nutritional needs, but also our efforts to sustain biodiversity and protect the environment. As the world's agricultural, environmental, and nutritional needs intersect—and often collide—how can nations, international organizations and consumers work together to reverse the damage by changing how we make, distribute, and buy food? And do we have the right to eat wrongly?

Jessica Fanzo is the Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Global Food & Agricultural Policy and Ethics at Johns Hopkins University. She has previously worked as an advisor for various organizations and governments including the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the Scaling Up Nutrition movement (SUN), the UN Standing Committee on Nutrition (UNSCN), and the World Health Organization (WHO). Her latest book is Can Fixing Dinner Fix the Planet? 


Professor Dan Banik, University of Oslo, Twitter: @danbanik  @GlobalDevPod

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Episode Transcription


Banik                    Jess, it's so lovely to see you. Welcome to the show.

Fanzo                   It's great to be here. Thanks for having me Dan.

Banik                    Congrats on this wonderful book that you've written. But before we discuss the book, I want to ask you a very general question. Because there's a lot of talk these days about this term food systems. So, let's discuss what is meant by a food system and why you think that food systems are currently at a critical juncture?

Fanzo                   A food system is, or you know, there are many ways to unpackage. Could be food systems, a global food system, a local food system. Food systems are really all of the processes and activities and actors that engage in growing food, moving food, packaging, processing food and selling food. And then you also have the consumers who very much engage with the food system and they're purchasing, they're eating food. So, it's all the actors and activities that make up the movement and consumption of food. And when we think about systems, we're thinking about things that are potentially outside the food system but influencing food systems like urbanization, climate change, population pressure. Those are all kind of part of what we consider the drivers of food systems change. Food systems are working actually and stayed pretty functional during covid, but they're stressed and strained. They're stressed from a climate perspective. They're stressed from the ability to distribute food equitably. They're moving a lot of food. But some of that food is unhealthy and contributing to disease burden. And largely a lot of people would argue that food systems are not equitable. Many of those who work in the food system are food insecure or people don't get access to a healthy diet. So, there are a lot of inequities across food systems for various reasons. Politically, socially, just even functionally. Food systems are stressed and strained. Sometimes you'll hear these terms like food systems are broken. I don't think that's totally accurate. I mean, food systems are delivering a lot of food around the world. It's just, is it the right food? Is it the right quantity? Is everyone getting the right amounts? More questions of nuance.

Banik                    If you were to think about food systems being stressed, was this happening before the pandemic? And that is at least my impression that there were some challenges and it's all too easy to blame everything bad on the pandemic, but there were certain problems that we were facing before. But certain things have worsened.

Fanzo                   That's right. Food systems have been stressed for a long time. And a lot of that has to do with environmental degradation of the biodiversity around us that our food system relies on. Climate change. We've got almost 8 billion people that need to be fed and we want to feed people well. We don't want to just feed them calories. So, the way the global agriculture sector is set up is to produce mainly staple grains, oils, and sugar. That's not really a healthy diet, so there's a real need to shift the way and the types of foods that were growing. So, there's a lot of debate around what food systems should look like and are we producing the right kinds of foods and trading the right kinds of foods? I think there was an argument around before the pandemic. Are we going to be able to continue to feed a growing world in the context of climate change, in the context of globalization and populism and all these areas of stress that every system, whether it is health, education food are facing?

Banik                    One of the big success stories in global development, as I see it, is our ability to feed people. You mention 8 billion people because if you think about some of the debates in the 1970s and I've been working on famine for several years, there were all of these questions raised about the Earth’s carrying capacity population explosion. And despite all of those challenges, we still have been producing quite a lot of food. And people like Amartya Sen would say, of course, that it is more about access, etc. But in terms of food production, we have solved many of the challenges, so if we could discuss that for a moment. In terms of world food insecurity, even though we have a lot of food that is available, we still have around 700 million people who go hungry to bed every night. I know these figures tend to change every year. How can you explain this success in food production on the one hand, and yet, we still have 700 million people who go hungry every night?

Fanzo                   Yeah, so it's such a great question and it requires looking at history and how food security unfolded. And the policies that were in place. There was a lot of fear about a growing population, a bit of racial undertones to it 50 years ago. But there was this fear around can we grow food for a growing population? What what's going to happen? And Global South with a growing burgeoning population. And largely technology kept up with that. We were able to produce enough food to feed the world, so the Malthusian hypothesis was really disproven in a sense. And a lot of that had to do with the Green Revolution, which brought hybrid seeds and fertilizers and infrastructure and better policies to South Asia, Latin America. And of course, that was a positive, but there are always trade-offs with these bold visions. And I think like you said, famines, we haven't seen massive deaths resulting from famines in decades. The last big famine was Ethiopia. Really, we still have micro famines and of course conflict spurs some of these micro famines and other issues. So, the question is what's gone wrong? And the agriculture sector overall has made big strides in improving varieties of mainly the staple crops, maize, rice, wheat, potatoes, oil, palm oil, soybean, just the major crop commodities. So, is that the best use of the 40% of the Earth's land where we grow food now, is that the best use of that land? And what are the repercussions on the environment and human health? There needs to be a shift now. That worked fine back then but now we need to diversify the agriculture landscapes. We need to ensure that people have better access to diets. 3 billion people can't afford a healthy diet. 3 billion people, that's crazy.

Banik                    I know. And I was thinking about what you just mentioned about the Green Revolution, because it is often seen in India and many other parts as being the success story. But I read in your book, but also in the general discussion, a lot of people are highlighting the fact that as you just mentioned the trade-offs. So, on the one hand you solve the famine issue, but there are all kinds of other issues related to soil erosion or pollution or water levels. And we see this in Punjab in India, where there are receding water levels, so there's an environmental dimension. But what you said just now is also interesting. At that period of time, it was important to solve the hunger issue or the famine problem, but now we are stuck with maybe some of the bill, some of the after-effects. So, if you were to now in hindsight, think about the Green Revolution, what would your take be? Could things have been done differently? Or was that the only choice available then for people like Norman Borlaug or M.S. Swaminathan and all those people who were involved in creating this miracle?

Fanzo                   I think hindsight, you know that was 50 plus years ago, right? And we have so much more knowledge and science and information than we had before. And maybe some realization around equity issues that were very much under the surface and now they've bubbled up. And so, we understand much more about equities and who's disadvantaged. But to me, the Green Revolution is a perfect example of not taking a food systems approach. You're thinking about the trade-offs. OK, well, I'm going to just work on producing more food and that's going to be my goal and that's all I'm going to focus on. And you're not thinking about the other outcomes that food systems potentially provide like environmental sustainability, health, and nutrition for a global population. You're just thinking I'm just going to produce a ton of calories and that's going to solve the issue. That's a very laser focus, it's not thinking about the potential impacts and trade-offs of that singular approach when looking at other outcomes like the environment. So, I think the Green Revolution was a miracle. There was a lot of important technologies for agriculture. But now we know that you can't take that kind of approach. There are consequences to that.

Banik                    Could you say that they were perhaps not aware to the same extent as we are today? I mean, they were not being bombarded with all of this climate change discourse, sustainability. It was more development, less environment as I see it, even though in Stockholm in 1972 there was talk about sustainable development. And the Brundtland Commission came up with their influential 1987 report. But it just seems to me that at that time it was that razor sharp focus on resolving that one problem. But I'm not sure whether they were factoring in some of these side effects.

Fanzo                   Yeah, because I think some of these, the environmental movement was really born out like you said in the 70s. UNEP was established and so it was becoming more into the fold between 1970 and 1974. But one of the issues I have with climate change. We've had a lot of data on climate for decades, 40-50 years. The climate has been changing, and climate scientists have been warning governments. And the data has gotten better, but it's sort of the same warning. But climate change is not visceral, it's not in your face like Ebola, so I think when people are thinking about what is the most important thing to focus on now if people are starving. People feel there's a moral obligation to deal with that at that moment. And climate change, yes, I acknowledge it's a big issue, but that's not what I have to worry about now because it's not in my face. I'm not feeling it this early. So, I think there's always this tension between what is considered morally immediate to address versus kick it down the road a bit and we'll worry about that later. We're in a sense now of like there's no worrying about it later. There's no later anymore. Right?

Banik                    So, in my work I've often distinguished between the visible crises that come with, say, a flood or cyclone versus some of the stuff that I've been studying. Drought, it happens far away. It's a slow onset crisis. It is easy to forget. The repercussions, the bad effects come six months later. So, it's not as visible. And so, for policymakers, it is the immediate visible destruction or somebody collapsing in front of you and dying from starvation that results in some sort of policy change, and everything else is just postponed. And I suppose it's a bit like that with climate change. And this film Don't look up very nicely illustrates that, right? Because we're so concerned with all of these mundane problems that we think are really important when we forget the bigger picture and the big problem.

Fanzo                   Or just the fires, right? Like right now we've got a big world fire going on with Ukraine and Russia. And it's a devastating situation in which the world is watching and pins and needles of the next couple of weeks. But I get this thing called the Sevens. It's a Washington Post. It's the seven headlines. And two days ago, it was Russia and Ukraine, of course, number one. Number two, 6 million people died of covid. Number three, the Amazon rainforest will become grasslands in the next 30 or 40 years. It will completely be gone.

Banik                    That is so shocking.

Fanzo                   That was below the fold, so to speak, right? But the impacts of losing the Amazon in totality is incredible. For climate change, biodiversity. And that should be a very immediate visceral thing to me. But again, drew very little attention.

Banik                    Let's discuss then the links between food and a warming planet. So, we've just discussed the fact that we were able to resolve this problem of feeding millions of people. We've averted famines, and now we're in a new situation where our ability to produce food is being questioned. There are all kinds of shocks to the global food system. What in your view can be done to somewhat address these problems? We can talk about policies that government should be implementing. There are some shocks, obviously, we can't control. Is it about adaptation? Is it about adapting to some shocks? Is it about being prepared? Our ability to foresee some of these shocks. Is that what you are concerned with mostly?

Fanzo                   Yeah, I think it's both. I think it is the being prepared and the adopting. On the preparation side, we work on something called the Food Systems Dashboard, which is trying to pull together food systems data for policymakers. And we need better data of course. But we also need to put data on how food systems are performing in the hands of policymakers so they can react to that data in real time. On the one side, it's giving policymakers as much data as possible so they can manage the context and be alerted. The second is what do they do about it? The adaptation is going to be key, and there's going to be some places that might not be very habitable. So, if people are moving and migrating, how do we create better social protection programs? How do we even change agriculture to grow more adaptable crops that are more resilient to a hotter world? We have a lot of those technologies that are in place.

Banik                    So, not adopting short-sighted farming practices, it could be conservation farming …

Fanzo                   Yeah, and even just different hybrids. Maybe GMOs will be important for some of these things. Drought-tolerant varieties, but we need the policies in place to be able to support those kinds of technologies, to support those kinds of conservation practices. And so, government does become really important in this to create an enabling environment to allow for these new adaptable practices and technologies to come into place.

Banik                    I really enjoyed reading your book and what I really liked among many things, is the fact that you address some of the issues that perhaps we are talking more of since certain reports. Like the EAT-Lancet Commission that I know you were a part of. And here in Norway there was quite a lot of attention when that report was launched, and the first reaction was why should we cut down on our meat? Much of the negative reaction. There were lots of positives, but much of the initial negative reactions had to do with food preferences, had to do with culture about what we eat, what we've been eating for hundreds of years. This is a part of our daily life, you know. So why are you expecting us to change and all of this. What can you say then about the role of culture, the role of food preferences?

Fanzo                   Yeah, and I think the EAT-Lancet did recommend very low animal sourced food consumption. And I would articulate that further and say for certain populations, in particular, that are consuming a lot of meat.

Banik                    The Global North, you mean?

Fanzo                   Yeah, and even within that there are some countries that consume way more meat than they need to, like the United States for example.

Banik                    What about China?

Fanzo                   China is increasing its meat consumption. Meat demand is increasing everywhere. As people have more disposable income, they want to eat more tasty animal sourced foods. On the culture side, I think you can still have the cuisines that you prefer, but there is a way to not be so excessive. And the amounts of calories we consume in the types of foods we consume, you can still have an enriching cultural landscape of your diet, but do you need to eat meat at every meal? Maybe not.

Banik                    I have to say that we have this discussion at home every evening.

Fanzo                   Yeah, and what happens?

Banik                    I have a 16-year-old and I have a 14-year-old. The 16-year-old is a professional, well, he'd like to think he is a professional soccer player. And for him it is “Dad, I need protein. I need this”. It has to be proper meat and he's very concerned with not eating unhealthy stuff. But we've tried to push, of course we've been doing for many years, fish, and a sort of a vegetarian diet on some days. But there's an enormous pushback. Give me some arguments that I could have in my arsenal. What are the arguments for and what are the arguments against meat?

Fanzo                   So, the argument for meat is that it's high in protein, high in a lot of micronutrients like iron and zinc, and other essential nutrients. And it's tasty. It's really tasty. Red meat is tasty to many people. That said, let's take cows, beef. They have a huge environmental footprint, right? They produce a lot of methane, a toxic greenhouse gas. They produce a lot of water. They use a lot of land. They're the number one instigator against climate change. There are a lot of other ways to get those nutrients and proteins from other lower environmental footprint substitutes, including other animals, be it chicken and fish like you had mentioned, other plant-based proteins. And I would argue that animal sourced foods, everyone argues that they need a lot of protein. Most of the world is over sufficient in protein, they don't need so much. Just because you intake protein doesn't mean it's going to build muscle mass, right? It doesn't equate like a piece of red meat does not equal a piece of muscle on your legs, right? Most of the world is totally sufficient in protein, so this idea that there's this protein deficiency that's proliferating around the world is just not true. Most people eat way more protein than they need. Your son should be thinking about the balance of a very rich diet and fruits and veg and nuts and seeds and whole grains. Some animal sourced foods, dairy, just a diversity of foods would go a long way.

Banik                    So, when we are talking about the argument against meat, you could make the case from a health perspective. Too much of red meat isn't good for you. But added to that is what you're doing in the book is also the climate perspective. So, then you have a double burden in many ways. You're saying that eating meat, excessive consumption of meat may worsen your health, but it could also contribute, or it does contribute to climate change and so cutting down on meat consumption is good.

Fanzo                   Yeah, it's a nuanced story, because consuming meat can be very healthy for you, depending on how it's raised and what it contains, right? So, some red meat can be really healthy. These unhealthy, poor quality, processed meats like the hot dogs and all that, these overly processed, salted, the unhealthy made meats are not so great for you. Now is a steak that's grass-fed and the cow hasn't received growth hormones and antibiotics and all this other junk that they put into cows. Is that a healthy food? Yes, hands down, absolutely. But I would argue that you have to think about what you value. And if it's health, having some red meat is fine, but also having fish and chicken has other important attributes to the health and diet. If you care about the environment, you might want to think about switching away from livestock and not everyone can afford to eat sustainably raised livestock. Most of the world does not sustainably raise their livestock. If you care about animal welfare, you might want to move away from animals overall or be very knowledgeable and selective about how those animals are raised that you do consume. But the thing is, we want the world to care about all of that. We want them to care about their own health. We want people to live on a planet that's sustainable for future generations, and we want animals also to have a good quality of life. And that's the hard part. 

Banik                    Given that you're in DC, I suddenly thought about …

Fanzo                   Are you craving a hamburger right now?

Banik                    No, I'm thinking about Fogo de Chao, this Brazilian restaurant in DC, and every time I've been at the World Bank we go out and have dinner there. It's this buffet where the meat keeps coming even though there's a nice salad bar, it's the meat that we are there for.

Fanzo                   Yeah, my brother-in-law lives in Argentina and every time we go there there's this big grilled sausages and steak. And it's excessive though. If we care about the world and we are convinced that our diet choices and our engagement in the food system matters, because there's 8 billion of us and we want to have children, and we want to have grandchildren, and we want them to live in a hospitable world, something's got to give. We can't keep living the lives we're living. And maybe that's changing to renewable energy. Diets do matter. They definitely matter, they impact greenhouse gases. The choices of food matter for forests that are carbon sinks that we are slowly destroying. These things matter if we care about future generations. If you want to live your life and destroy the planet for your health benefits, that's your choice. But for those who want to have children and you want them to lead somewhat of a quality life, you have to be thinking about that. Now, I'm a person who doesn't have children and I care about this stuff. For future, for your children.

Banik                  But let me ask you something. You spent last year in Italy. And if there's one country I love to visit, it's Italy because of the cuisine, because of the weather, because of the beaches, you name it. How was it for you to live there? And I know you've lived there before too. What kind of conversations did you have with your colleagues? Did you get a sense that Italians were changing their food habits? And was there a perception that their food culture was being threatened by all of this advice on what not to eat?

Fanzo                   Yeah, I think Italy is very worried about that. I was also in Bologna, so you got the mortadella, the basically the baloney. It's a very meat-rich culture. Northern Italy, Tuscany. And for Italians, it's all about food culture. You go to Bologna, it is certain cuisine. You go to Rome, it's a different cuisine. You go to Sardinia, it's another cuisine. Italians don't eat a ton of meat. It doesn't dominate. Of course, if you have a steak Fiorentina, that's the dominant thing. But I feel that Italians have a good kind of balance. They're not so excessive in their consumption, and they like quality. If they eat prosciutto, though, they don't equate that to a hot dog and other processed meat. They're very into the quality and regional tape of their cuisine and I think it's a bit different in the quantities consumed. They're not so excessive about it, but their culture and the meat they do consume is very important and they don't want that to go away. That is part of their tradition and identity. So how do they keep those traditions alive but try to eat a bit more sustainably? And that's something that I think every culture is going to have to grapple with, but I still think you can have that, but maybe just not every day. Try to get the fruits and veg in there a bit more. And then eat your traditional carnivorous diet at night, right?

Banik                    In the book, you recall your experiences from Timor-Leste where you spent some time and this fits into this overarching argument that you make and many of your colleagues make. One has to diversify diets; one can't just eat the same stuff. Rice, which is the staple diet now in Timor-Leste isn't enough. And it turns out it wasn't even the traditional source of food; it was introduced by external actors. And so, for a country that is as young and low-income, often lots of low-income related problems. How should these countries go about diversifying their diets? So, there must be some low-cost alternatives, there's always vegetables that may or may not be accessible in some context. You have low-income countries like Timor-Leste on the one hand, but you also have Palo Alto in California where I used to live. Where East Palo Alto is separated from Palo Alto by Highway 101. And just on the other side of the highway, there aren't that many options for fresh vegetables. There aren't that many shops actually selling vegetables or fresh fruit, so you have two very different circumstances, right? So, you have Palo Alto, CA, extremely rich Silicon Valley, and Timor-Lester. What is common in East Palo Alto, and Timor-Leste I suppose is the extent to which one has a choice of changing one's diet. 

Fanzo                   Yeah, I think in Timor, being a country that's so still dominated by agriculture. There are a lot of smallholder farmers. There's a lot of potential to diversify the landscapes there to enhance some of the traditional food. And right now, they just import all their rice, right? And it's more expensive for them, but they're trying to grow their rice domestically, which is more expensive than them importing it from Thailand or Vietnam. So, there's a lot that can be done in promoting and incentivizing smallholders to continue to grow a diverse food basket in Timor-Leste. So much opportunity to build up their sustainable fisheries. They're completely surrounded by water, but there's no really rigorous regulation and growth of that sector. Aquacultures can be another big one. There's a really interesting movement growing in Timor around promotion of these traditional foods and taking pride in these traditional foods post invasion of Indonesia. So, there's kind of a food justice angle that can be had around consuming the traditional foods that are also nutritious. The problem that you're seeing now in Timor with trade is the influx of these highly processed foods. Sugary, salty, fatty foods that are coming into the capital, that is those foods are cheap, and they're tasty. That's the inevitable pathway of every country.

Banik                    And also, this idea that it is modern. That's what the West does. That's why we have McDonald's and KFC.

Fanzo                   Yeah, and the conundrum is, how do you get countries like Timor to recognize that these foods have been detrimental in places like the United States for health and a variety of reasons? And how can they then leapfrog over that? Avoid those kinds of foods. And there was an early case study in South Korea. It was a promotion by the government that did a big campaign around traditional diets and it worked. A lot of people had this pride around consuming traditional foods and avoiding the US western foods. I mean Italy is another example, really has avoided bringing in a lot of fast-food companies and chain restaurants. There's not a Starbucks in Rome. Fascinating, right? How did that happen in Italy versus Paris where you see him all over? So, Italy has been quite protective of its cultural traditions around diets. There's I think a lot of lessons to be had around some of those case studies of how emerging economies can avoid falling into those same traps. On Palo Alto, it's the same in Baltimore. It's the same in DC. You go here to DC downtown, but then you've got Anacostia, which is a food desert, right? And there are lots of initiatives to try to improve physical access, incentivizing retailers to come into poor neighbourhoods that have been affected by historic redlining of cities. My worry about the physical addressing, the physical access or the food desert pieces is that it doesn't go far enough. There's the economic access and then there's the social access.

Banik                    You can't have a Whole Foods in East Palo Alto and expect it to make a big profit. But you can have three Whole Foods in a small neighbourhood in Palo Alto, not in East Palo Alto. And this is where, as you rightly point out, I've seen a lot of people, and we've done this too, when we've missed Scandinavia, we've gone to East Palo Alto where there's IKEA and had the meatballs there. And it's cheap.

Fanzo                   I think there are a lot of ways to bring in lower-cost retail that fits more with the culture. I mean, it's really fascinating. I was just in New York the other day and I walked Broadway from 72nd, which there's like a Trader Joe's and all these nice upscale markets. And I walked all the way up to Washington Heights, which is 168. It is a beautiful walk. I highly recommend Broadway walk. All of Broadway of New York City. If you have like 20 miles of time, but as you go up to Washington Heights, you get into Dominican Republic neighbourhood. Dominicans are living up there and the food environments, the markets totally change. And you see the rich culture and who's living in these neighbourhoods completely shape the kinds of food environments there. So, you see tons of cassava and plantains. And it's really cheap. The avocados down on 72nd street were two for $5. By the time you got up to the top, they were three for $5, right? So, it's really fascinating how you see some of the influence of the neighbourhood and the people living there. And what kind of food markets they want. What kind of foods they want to have in their environments? And I think communities themselves can be very empowering and powerful in shaping the communities in which they live. I mean the community gardens you see all over New York. Those are community-owned and maybe they're not feeding the communities, but they certainly are important for community cohesion and bringing together and preserving some of those traditions that a lot of people from different countries have come into New York City. It's a beautiful melting pot, but they've sort of carried on those traditions from where they've originally come from and have brought it into New York. I think more and more there's not only a focus on improving physical access, particularly in poor neighbourhoods, but ensuring that economic and social access is there as well. Thinking about the social access being this is how people are living their lives. How do we make it easier for them to be able to access food? Because of the context of their lives beyond just price and location, and there's a lot of work being done to improve access issues in the US and many other cities. But again, it takes strong mayors, right? Strong city policies. You see a lot of work at the mayor level.

Banik                    When one talks about the term malnutrition, of course we've talked about one part of it so far, which is undernutrition. But there's also the overnutrition, or the malnutrition where we eat the wrong kinds of food. And so where do you think we got it wrong? What happened in the United States? Why did obesity suddenly explode? Is it a combination of eating processed foods? Is it the lack of exercise? Because in Norway, for example, there's been much more of a balanced approach. It's not just about diets, it's also about physical activity. You can't just do one aspect and ignore the other. So, when you think about the double burden as you write about in the book of obesity and undernutrition. Where did it all go wrong? Because we have the food, and we could choose. Is it our brains telling us we want the crunchy food, the tasty food? The idea of modernity, the happy meals? What is it that explains this rise in obesity?

Fanzo                   I think in the United States it's really interesting and I think there's multiple reasons. One is the demonising of some foods. If you remember, sugar was not really demonized, but fat was, and we saw sort of the obesity explode during that time as a correlation really. So, all the products tried to remove all the fats and to make those products palatable, they added sugar. So, we have this just massive consumption of sugar and now that's a correlation. But many people argue that policy change was one that was pretty devastating. But I think it's also industry, they are making these highly processed, palatable foods. The ingredients to make those foods are very cheap and junk food. Really cheap. They're super convenient and they're really tasty. And there's some research arguing that, like you said, they're addictive and there's debate in that whether or not they're addictive. And the world is sort of moving towards that kind of ultra-processed diet. If 50% of your diet is made up of those kinds of foods it's devastating for weight, it's devastating for noncommunicable diseases. And then pile on top of that our sedentary lifestyles. Like you said, there's not enough green space, it's not incorporated into our daily lives. Children are in school there; the gym has been removed from their gym hour. Remember, we used to have gym class? We're sitting in front of our computers. It's just this whole shift in moving from high labour to low labour and we just sit in all day. And so, all of these kinds of culminating factors have come together to now, what we've got is 2.2 billion people who are overweight and obese, which is a huge risk factor for all these noncommunicable diseases which are really expensive to deal with for countries.

Banik                    So, in the book, of course, you discuss this extensively. How can we actually eat more ethically in terms of fixing our dinner, fixing the planet? And I was thinking about a recent module that I offered together with a colleague at the medical faculty here in Oslo on climate and health. And one of the tasks that one of the student groups was working on had to do with the kind of advice that the authorities usually give. Eat five different types of fruits and vegetables. Eat less meat, eat more fish. All of those things. And we were thinking about how we could have a system where you actually went to a grocery store, and you were able to choose, not just healthy or unhealthy, but also climate-friendly food. Whether we could have these shelves clearly marked not just organic but healthy and good for the planet. And there were some interesting discussions in class. And we weren't sure whether this would work. So, could you reflect a bit and tell my listeners about these difficult choices that we have to make every day because organic food is often expensive, and we have a limited budget, and we want to do the right thing. But there are all kinds of things that prevent us from doing the right thing.

Fanzo                   Also, people just don't know where their food is sourced from or what's in those foods or who was on the front end and making those foods. And so, there's been some interesting work. Hopkins started something called Choose Food, which was a project looking at what if you had this multipurpose label on the front of the pack? And now Tim Lang at City University London has been working on something called omni-label. What if you had on the front of the pack that if you care about animal welfare it gets high marks, this product does. If you care about climate, it gets low marks. If you care about health, it gets high marks. If you care about animal welfare, it gets low marks, right? Can you imagine having a multipurpose label? Let's use the usual stop sign thing as an example, it gets all green across all of these four or five things you value. Let's say it's health, environment, animal welfare, fair trade, sustainably produced or so. Imagine every product lights up green, red, or yellow across these categories.

Banik                    So, we take our smartphones, scan that and it just says green, green, green. Let's buy it.

Fanzo                   Yeah, can you imagine that? Or if you're like, I don't care about my health and the environment, I only care about animal welfare so I'm only going to pick foods that are green on animal welfare. Because that's the thing I care about. But think of the logistics of doing that from industries perspective. How do we start to create these thresholds of what gets red and what gets green? How is that established? Is industry going to go for it? How do governments regulate that? But you can imagine this. It would be so incredibly helpful for consumers to be able to navigate this complex space, and it gives them information that's very central, right on the front of the pack. They don't have to go digging around and doing research on where the food comes from. But consumers deserve that so they can make better choices. It's just logistically how do we get there? And that's when you get into kind of the cooperation across food system actors, which gets always murky and complex. 

Banik                    Sometimes I feel that things don't work because we don't communicate things better, but we also have this tendency of naming and shaming people for doing certain things. So, I've often thought about, if I went into a grocery store and I had a food cart. And somehow when I left it, I should get some sort of sign saying “Dan, today you did a good job, this was good for the climate”. I wanted to ask you about bananas because you talk about that in the book. When we buy a banana here, it looks so perfect, and this has come from very far away from another continent. And in that journey a lot of things have happened to this fruit. So, is it ethically correct to buy a banana here in Norway when it's come from all the way from Latin America?

Fanzo                   From a greenhouse gas perspective, the distance that your food travels is not as important as how the banana was grown. The whole food miles is a bit of a myth because most food is transported on ships which don't emit so many greenhouse gases. So, the food miles is less, it's the concern of how it's grown and for plantations be they palm oil, banana, sugar cane. There's a whole labour issue around that. So, if you can get fair trade bananas that are more sustainably grown, and they have those labels, if you walk into Trader Joe's, you'll see there's a fair-trade label on your banana. We used that as an example in the beginning of the book. Just my editor had that idea because she's just like, it's such this easy food to eat, it's everywhere, it is tasty. And every time I have someone who's read the book, they're like “I'm never eating a banana again, thanks a lot”. But that's a great example. It makes it a little bit of an easier choice, because that fair-trade is just a sticker that's on that banana. Then it just distinguishes it from the typical Chiquita banana.

Banik                    I have another example that I am struggling with avocados. I know this is good for me, but it isn't good for the climate and there are tons of these cases, right?

Fanzo                   Yeah, avocados are a very sad story because now the avocados have really been taken over by the Mexican cartel. They call it green gold. As soon as there's a cash crop, something becomes a world cash crop there are always power struggles. And in Mexico, it's really the cartel and Michoacán that's taken over the avocado trade. What do we do about that? I don't know. I mean, that is complex, but avocados do have a significant water footprint, so again, this is where technology could come in. Can they breed a better avocado that's more drought-tolerant? They probably could. But yeah, avocados are one of those things that now you're dealing not only with an environmental constraint but a social constraint. Do you want to support the Mexican cartels that are pretty much decimating the smallholder avocado farmers in Mexico? Maybe eat less avocados. I hate to say it.

Banik                    Well, I've just finished watching Narcos, Mexico on Netflix. So, I have this very vividly in my mind how that works. How El Chapo got all his money. But the final set of issues, this has been such a fun conversation, I don't want to let you go yet. But a final set of issues. In the book you write about all kinds of policies that can create better food, and I notice that you discuss several areas such as improving the diversity of farming systems, farming with nutrition in mind, somehow restructuring the supply chain for food security and nutrition, changing the choice architecture of so-called food environments, limiting the promotion and marketing of unhealthy foods and the role of advertising. If you were to summarize some of the most important messages, say for policymakers in terms of how they can enact better policies for better food, what would you highlight?

Fanzo                   For me, a good starting point is at the beginning. It would be changing our agriculture systems. I know it's massive. But there are a lot of smallholders around the world that are growing diverse foods. When you do it, incentivize smallholders, give them the support they need, a lot of them are women. To me, that is such a game-changer. They're growing a ton of food for the world. But they just can't get access to the market. And then the second part of that agriculture piece is changing subsidies. Think of the United States, we need to shift that. Part of the UN Food System Summit last year there was a lot of conversation around changing subsidies and everyone would just say don't even go there, but we have to go there, we have to go there. So, to me, it's starting at the beginning. Let's change the agriculture systems. Let's incentivize different kinds of foods to be grown. It's a huge task, but if we don't deal with that, we're not hitting the root cause of food systems where we're injecting a lot more nutritious foods into the system. If we inject more nutritious foods into the system, the price will come down, access will go up, and that's just hasn't been sorted out. We're still just largely producing a couple of crops. They are staple crops; they don't provide a lot of nutritional benefit. Farmers don't get a lot of money for them, and the cycle just continues. So, to me that would be the first thing to do.

Banik                    Jess, it was so nice to see you. Thank you so much for coming on my show today.

Fanzo                   Thank you, thanks for having me Dan. It was great to talk to you.