Danielle Nierenberg is an expert on sustainable agriculture and food issues. She is the co-founder of FoodTank: The Food Think Tank. From 2009-2012, Danielle was the Director of the Nourishing the Planet project housed at the Worldwatch Institute. Danielle worked with more than 60 authors from all over the world to produce State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet.
Cheap food come with costs that often aren’t reflected in the price; it comes at the cost of dependency and use of fossil fuels, upset in local markets, and use of harmful pesticide and fertilizers on our crops. Danielle Nierenberg explains how we got here and what it will take to realize the true cost of food.
Douglas Gayeton: Can you explain to us how we got to a point where we actually have cheap food?
Danielle Nierenberg: It’s a long and complicated story, but I think it began after World War II when we developed agrochemicals, pesticides and fertilizers that could be used to protect crops from pests that we couldn’t protect them from before. Through the Green Revolution and the important and controversial work that Norman Borlaug did, we were able to save millions of people in India from starvation. This depended on hybrid crops and other crops that could be produced on a large scale, and that could produce more yield than crops used traditionally by farmers in the developing world. We were able to create surpluses in these countries for the first time.
This surplus has led to a situation where we are producing massive amounts of what are largely not nutritious crops. These are crops that can be less expensive than whole foods, and the global market has given us this opportunity to shift them across the world, often upsetting local markets because that food is often much less expensive than what is sold domestically.
That surplus has also led us to find unconventional uses for a lot of these commodity crops. A lot of it doesn’t go into feeding or nourishing people, but into the bellies of livestock. They’re all now fed with grain that’s highly dependent on fossil fuels and most of these animals are raised in confinement rather than in the pasture eating grass.
Douglas: We’ve managed to industrialize and consolidate nearly every aspect of our food system, essentially turning food into a commodity. What will it take to make people willing to pay more for food?
Danielle: I’m generally a very hopeful and optimistic person. There are so many opportunities for sustainable choices and practices in the food system, but I’m very conflicted about this idea of getting people to change. I think on some level we need a massive crisis to help people understand that the cost of our food is not reflected in the price that we pay at the grocery store. Maybe it’s high oil prices or the impact of climate change becoming increasingly clear that will encourage them to think about food prices differently.
I’m not sure what it will take, other than having people really see the benefits of what producing food in more agro-ecological ways can do for the environment, for farmers’ incomes, for nutrition and overall health and well-being, and for providing economic opportunities. Some of the food system’s big benefits are in real opportunities it creates for jobs and employment, whether it’s growing, processing, marketing or cooking food.
History has shown us we need a dramatic event in order to make people think differently and be willing to pay more. We [can] try to educate and create awareness before that happens, but I don’t know if we have enough time. The urgency of these issues is so clear and if we’re going to act, we need to do it quickly.