What The World Eats
— A Closer Look

One of the most striking aspects of the photos in the "What The World Eats" exhibition at the Nobel Peace Center is the contrast between raw foods and industrial products. What implications does this have for not only the health of the people, but also for some of the biggest challenges we're facing as a whole planet?

Food Studio was invited to help mark the closing of the “What the World Eats” exhibition. As an integral part of the evening we looked at some of the implications of the photographs which show people around the world with the food they eat through the course of one week. One of the most striking aspects is the contrast between raw foods and industrial products. What implications does this have for not only the health of the people, but also for some of the biggest challenges we’re facing as a whole planet?

The implications for health

In many of the pictures of families in so-called underdeveloped countries, the food was straight from the nature, mostly grown by themselves. Does this make them poor people? Like the family in Ecuador, they radiate pride and love of life. In the pictures from industrialized countries the food is packaged, mostly unrecognizable as a product of nature. The film “Super Size Me” was an experiment in pure industrial diet: too much fat, too much sugar and too much salt, in addition to corn-fed red meat. The results are only too obvious: diabetes, cardio-vascular illnesses and obesity, to name the most common. What goes into refined food products is often a secret of the industry. Not even chemists can understand all of the fine print which lists the ingredients. If we want to choose healthy food, we do well to follow the simple advice of the food journalist, Michael Pollan: “Don’t eat anything your grandmother would not recognize as food”.


… for farmers?
For farmers, the industrialization of food production means less and less pay for the food they produce. In Norway prices paid to farmers have decreased with up to 50 % the last 25 years. We have lost half of the dairy farms in the last 10 years. Farmers in underdeveloped countries suffer not only from low and unstable prices, but also from land grabbing, loss of rights (for example to grow traditional grains) and competition from cheap, subsidized surpluses which are dumped on their markets from the storage and waste bins of industrial countries.

…for use of energy?
Industrialized agriculture is heavily based on use of non-renewable energy resources. From a study on use of energy for an average family of four in Sweden, it was shown that the majority of 40 % was due to the means of production, processing, packaging, transportation, purchase and preparation of food. In his book, “Eating Fossil Fuels” the author Dale Allen Pfeiffer, cites a study which estimates that the energy used in the production of one day’s consumption of food in the US is the equivalent of the work of one man in his best age: 111 hours of work spent over 3 weeks for one day’s food consumption! While industrial food production uses on average one calorie of fossil energy for each edible calorie produced for plant crops, traditional food production using only manual and animal labor as well as the free energy of the sun could give a return of 30 times or more the invested energy.

… for biological diversity?
When the topic of biodiversity is mentioned in Norway, most people immediately think of distant rainforests or nearby butterflies and salamanders. Awareness of the loss of diversity among our cultivated crops and domesticated animals has not quite reached our shores. But the loss of biological diversity in plants and domestic animals is also very much a local problem. Where there were hundreds of different types of apples grown in Norway, today there are only a handful that can be found in the stores. It is difficult to know how many varieties of our grains, vegetables and potatoes have been lost. The UN organization for Food and Agriculture (FAO) estimated in 2010 that 75 % of the varieties of food plants were lost during the last 50 years the largest agro-chemical companies with Monsanto in the lead have bought up seed production at an alarming rate, creating monopolies which foster profits at the cost of diversity. Trade agreements are in the making (TPP) which will further limit the possibility of maintaining the biological diversity of food crops that we still have.

… for soil and soil fertility?
While awareness of the need to preserve biodiversity is growing, knowledge of the effects of industrial agriculture on the quality of soil is still largely unrecognized. There is a saying in Norway that humus is the farmer’s gold. Taking care of the organic substance in the soil was the primary task of the farmer so that future generations would be able to continue to grow abundant crops on their land. With the advent of artificial fertilizer, the task of returning sufficient organic matter to the soil was neglected. You might say that we have lived on the capital built up in in the soils over generations. However, the loss of humus in topsoil has now reached a critical point. Without sufficient amounts of organic matter, the soil is exposed to wind and water erosion, to packing through use of heavy machinery, to depletion of essential trace elements, to drought with a reduced water-holding capacity and to poor drainage due to lack of soil organisms which maintain a loose structure of the soil. Over the past forty years, soil erosion has caused nearly a third of the world’s arable land to become unproductive. The loss of topsoil is largely irreversible during a human lifespan. The question is not only how to reverse the degradation of soils, but also what the loss of organic matter in the soil means for the entire planet.

…for climate change?
Our planet has become a fever patient, as most people now would admit. What does our food have to do with the increasing temperatures that threaten life as we know it? Industrial agriculture uses large amounts of energy, as we have seen above. If we look closely at the direct use of energy in industrial agriculture, we must acknowledge that the production of artificial fertilizer has high energy costs. Between 11-15 % of the total production of greenhouse gasses is estimated to stem from the direct use of energy in artificial fertilizer, machinery and other products such as pesticides and fungicides. However, the import and production of animal fodder in former rainforest and savanna areas causes even greater production of climate gasses, as much as 18 %. If industrial processing, transporting, packaging and sale is included in the accounting, then 15-20 % of the production of greenhouse gasses must be added. Waste along the industrial path completes the account with another 2 to 4 % of greenhouse gasses. There are differences in studies of food production, but the bottom line is that the industrial method of food production accounts for much of the rising amount of climate gasses in the atmosphere. In a newly published report by European Union, it is stated that the yearly loss of organic matter in the soils in Europe is a vital factor for the climate situation. If only 0.1 % of organic soil matter is lost each year, it is equivalent to the greenhouse gasses produced by a 100 million cars! The documented losses of organic soil matter in Europe greatly exceed 0.1 %.

Words by Linda Jolly