Food production across the globe. (Photo: WFP)

This is how the clergyman Thomas Malthus saw our inevitable future in the 18th century when population expands beyond the capacity of the planet to sustain it: “Epidemics, pestilence and plague advance in terrific array, with famine following, to complete the great work of extermination.”

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Thanks to technology and medicine, the global population has grown far beyond what Malthus would have ever thought possible (7.8 billion today) and there is enough food to keep everyone alive, even though there is much waste and it is still poorly distributed.

But around the time of the last financial crisis in 2008, the prices of food staples like wheat, corn, and rice shot up so high that nearly 500 million people on earth were pushed into poverty and malnutrition.

Somehow, Malthus’s pessimistic vision lives on, and keeps resurfacing. How can we finally prove him wrong?

The risk of worldwide famine as a result of COVID-19, particularly amongst vulnerable populations in the developing world, is now almost a certainty. (Photo: WFP)

Moving beyond the pandemic: the risk of famine

In a world now destabilized by pandemic, the WHO and some other organizations now warn that another 150-200 million poor people risk imminent famine. And what about over 2 billion people on our planet who now suffer from obesity, and the many more who now suffer chronic diseases due to poor diets?

We urgently need to make changes in our food and agricultural systems, I argue, in order to avoid catastrophe.

We have been consuming ever more scarce resources as the world population increases. Our societal model is extractive and not regenerative, competitive and not cooperative. So we continue to deplete the earth’s riches, exacerbating the disharmony with nature.

Take the case of nitrogen and carbon, both vital elements for plant growth and nutrition. Through unsustainable and extractive agricultural practices, we continue to remove them from the soil and push them into the atmosphere. Industrial agriculture generates excessive emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane that are pollutants and greenhouse gases.

Un-natural industrialized diets increasingly pose a health hazard and can encourage chronic diseases.

Chronic diseases: a need to move away from ‘industrialized diets’

Monocultures are now also the norm in agriculture, driven by monopolistic companies (major chemical and fertilizer producers) that have a lock on seed patents and push the intensive use of chemical fertilizers and toxic crop protection.

As a result, particularly since industrialization, we as a population have also weakened our own health and immunity by adopting unnatural “industrialized” diets.  Lifestyle issues like lack of movement as well as stress/negativity are also to blame. And so, we have become more vulnerable to a wide range of health threats, including viruses.

The figures paint a very clear picture; over half of global mortality is now the result of chronic diseases and this number continues to grow steadily across almost all regions on our planet. In the US, the birthplace of fast and industrialized food, the rate is much greater: one out of seven deaths are due to chronic conditions, with cardiovascular disease in the lead, killing nearly 650,000 people each year. Statistically, chronic disease is by far the greater pandemic!

The global sugar and high fructose corn syrup industries pump out over a USD 100 billion worth of toxic sweeteners every year. This is a leading cause of the booming rates in diabetes. These sweeteners are toxic for the human body at current rates of consumption.

Who had heard of endocrine disorders 20 or 30 years ago? Many of the major health conditions we struggle with today hardly existed 50 years ago. Today, nearly 70 per cent of the healthcare budget in the US is spent on treating chronic diseases. Care for chronic illness costs an average of USD 5,300 per person per year in the US, more than annual salaries in many poorer countries.

Healthy agriculture offers one of the best solutions

Yet it’s clear what foods we need to avoid or consume in moderation. Thanks to digitalization and interconnectivity, we have immediate access to unbiased health experts who are not influenced by the Big Food lobbies. If there is still any doubt, we can scan products on the shelves with any number of phone apps and avoid excess sugar, salt and hazardous chemicals.

At the same time, agriculture offers one of the best solutions to the global environmental and health challenge. Plants themselves, particularly “pulse crops” (beans, lentils, chickpeas) that are rich in proteins, are not only a healthy alternative to traditional meat, but they fix nitrogen and other elements needed for their growth in the soil. Such crops actually have the capacity to reverse the current disequilibrium in carbon and heal the planet.

Growing healthy food is in and of itself “regenerative”. It involves enriching soils, through use of cover crops and other methods, fixing carbon from the atmosphere and other essential nutrients, and avoiding toxins. It also fosters essential biodiversity, unlike industrialized monocrops. Nutritious food produced by regenerative farming is healthy and can boost compromised immune systems, allowing people to avoid taking drugs to treat chronic conditions.

Stop buying industrial white flour and over-sweetened/over-salty processed foods, or groceries with excess plastic packaging. Initially, this junk will sit on the shelves, but then producers and retailers will get the message.

Consumer behaviour is the most important economic signal to drive the shift. Soft-drink companies and fast-food groups need to change their recipes and BIG GULPS should come with health warnings. Send producers a clear message by not consuming this junk!

We will thus empower growers by consuming raw or minimally processed food and paying for good health, rather than encouraging unhealthy and over-processed food production that is destroying our health, immunity and the environment.

Coast Sullenger is Head of Thematic Investments at Landolt et Cie, the second oldest bank in French-speaking Switzerland, and the Principal of GAIA Family Office that is his private office. He was previously a portfolio manager for Lombard Odier private bank, based in Geneva.

Sullenger moderated a “plant-based meat” webinar, held by Landolt & Cie on 6 May 2020 (11am to noon) with Jens Tuider, the chief of staff of ProVeg International, a leading thought leader on sustainable food, as his special guest. His 52-minute documentary made after the 2008 crisis, Last Supper for Malthus, is available on vimeo at https://vimeo.com/359750818.

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