Food and Health: A Pathway to Prosperity? - Part I of III

What would it take to make the world a much more prosperous place? Technological innovation? Investments in education? Prudent fiscal and economic policies? Freedom and democracy?

Unraveling a riddle so seemingly complex would go a long way toward solving many of humanity’s most intractable problems. But a group of high-powered individuals and entities who participated the Global South Summit in November is trying to make the case that a focus on two main are-as—food and health—should be the starting point on the road to prosperity.

About 400 international leaders and experts from business, NGOs, academia, and science gathered in Nashville for the second annual Global South Summit, part of the Global Action Platform (GAP) developed to advance this ideal. Some have likened the Summit to a “mini-Davos,” referring to the Swiss city that hosts the prestigious annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

According to Scott Massey, chairman and CEO of the Cumberland Center, a joint business-university think tank that organized the summit, the Global Action Platform offers a venue to create new enterprises and innovation through investment; connect working groups and businesses; and communicate globally about solutions and actions.

Massey said some of the tangible aspects of the Global Action Platform (aside from the Summit) include “leadership committees and dialogues,” a “Global Action Report” laying out ideas and strategies, a $1 million prize for innovations in food and health, and a fellowship program.

Sustainable Models for Food Production

The Summit included free-flowing panel sessions, two of which included representatives of the International Food Information Council (IFIC) and IFIC Foundation.

IFIC and IFIC Foundation’s president and CEO, David Schmidt, took part in a panel discussion with Harold Schmitz, PhD, Chief Science Officer, Mars Incorporated; John Ruff, Immediate Past President, Institute of Food Technologists; and Nicholas Haan, PhD, Director of Global Grand Challenges, Singularity University on sustainability and new business models for food and agriculture. The session began with a harrowing statistic that encap­sulated the gravity of the conversation: 842 million people in the world go hungry every day of their lives.

While the panelists generally agreed that new models for food and agriculture are needed, some expressed concern about the polarizing nature of some conversations, particularly those surrounding food science, processed foods, and biotechnology.

“Too often who’s really driving the public discussion is a smaller subset,” Schmidt said. “It’s the loudest voices, sometimes the most extreme voices. There’s a large part of the population that’s sitting back, taking this all in, and doesn’t know where to go exactly.”

John Ruff, president of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), agreed. “This negativity about food science, processed food and so forth is poten­tially the biggest barrier to what I think could otherwise be done” to address sustainability. He said another barrier is “the communication of sci­ence with less than valid data.”

Ruff added that IFT, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and others conducted a study published in the Journal ofNutrition that found “zero correlation between the level of processing of a food” and its nutritional value. (Eicher-Miller, et al., 2012) “It’s absolutely not true that processed foods are less good for you nutritionally,” although he pointed out that consumption of some processed foods should be limited.

Schmidt added, “When it comes down to science ... the whole weight of the evidence rules. Science is never perfect, but there is such strong consen­sus science on what we’re talking about on some of these topics, like food and agricultural biotechnology.

“When you make choices to invest in the future and to ensure a sustainable planet, we have to use the best science, not necessarily perfect science or guaranteed science, to make our decisions going forward.“

“Feeding the Future”

A separate session focused on feeding the 9 billion expected inhabitants of the world by the year 2050 included IFIC’s senior vice president and executive director of the IFIC Foundation, Kimberly Reed. Reed was joined on the panel by former World Food Prize laureates Philip E. Nelson, PhD, professor emeritus at Purdue University, and Jo Luck, president of Heifer International. It was moderated by Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, which selects the World Food Prize winners.

When asked what advice she would give to journalists who cover stories about food and food insecurity, Reed replied, “I would really stress that you need to stop with any sensational headlines to get viewers watching, but focus on the facts about food, nutrition and health,” she said. “I would also stress the importance that journalists, as well as many different types of groups—academic institutions, NGOs and even private industry— collaborate on these very important issues about feeding our planet.”

Then Reed asked Quinn about the aftermath of his foundation’s selection this year of two prize recipients who work for major agricultural biotech­nology companies. He said, “We certainly knew there would be controversy about selecting the founders of agricultural biotechnology for the award, because biotechnology and genetic modi?ication are subjects that seem to draw a lot of passion. But the fact is ... we don’t give our award to companies; we give our awards to individuals for personal individual achievements.”

Reed concluded the discussion with some motivating words for champions of food, nutrition and health: “Educate, inspire, and communicate.”