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Free Range Talk

CLF experts dish on the future of food.

Interview by Brian W. Simpson • Photo by Christopher Myers

On a snowy Saturday, Center for a Livable Future faculty gathered at Baltimore's Liquid Earth café for lunch and conversation.


Can the poor afford good quality, healthy food?

Robert Lawrence: It depends on what you mean by affordable. I'm reminded of the car mechanic: you either pay now or you pay later. The externalized cost to health and to the environment of the current American diet really makes it unaffordable to all of us. Low-income people get a special hit, however, because they end up buying more processed food because of the low retail cost but with the high content of cheap inputs-fats, sugars, salt.

Anne Palmer: Price is obviously a factor. If it's going to be affordable and healthy, it's going to be mostly raw products that you're working with and not prepared foods. You need skills, kitchen equipment and knowledge about how to prepare it.

Has the foodie movement helped drive awareness of food quality and sustainability?

Roni Neff: Absolutely, it's made a huge difference. There's now an ever-expanding market for the kinds of sustainably produced foods that we'd like to see more of. And the more market there is, the more production there is.

Lawrence: The foodies are exploring; they're trying new things. And then other people eventually adopt those innovations. [But] unintended negative consequences are always a real problem. So think of quinoa. Quinoa was really introduced to consumers by a few people who discovered its nutritional benefit, the taste. Some of the low-income people in the Andes, however, are actually no longer able to afford quinoa because, as a cash crop, its export value is much greater.

Several researchers told me there's a real chasm between nutrition and agriculture.

Keeve Nachman: I think the nutrition and food systems communities are after the same set of goals. I think nutrition is just one way that the food system influences health. It benefits both of us to pursue a common ground where the recommendations that are made on the nutrition front could also guide people in making decisions on the other aspects of the food system.

Is it possible to have healthy, fresh food that's fast and easy as well?

Palmer: I don't feel like we've really answered that question. If we're being honest: Do I go home and cook a meal every night? Heck no, I don't have time. So what do I do? We throw things together, we try and make it work. You try and make things as healthy as possible.

Bob, what's been CLF's greatest success-and its biggest failure?

Lawrence: The great success has been that discussion of the food system, and its role as an important part of the public health agenda, has been advanced tremendously by faculty, staff and students, through our innovation grants program, our fellowship pro-gram, the courses that we offer, and our collaboration with the Meatless Monday campaign. The biggest failure, I would say, is that despite some extraordinarily valuable contributions to the knowledge base, the policy domain for the U.S. food system remains highly resistant to evidence-based interventions.

What will it take to actually change the food system in the U.S.?

Lawrence: The problem with our food system is that it's a slow-rolling catastrophe. There are these episodic major epidemics of foodborne disease. So there's a general uneasiness in the American public about the safety of our food. But the connection between [that] and the fact that in a generation and a half, we have totally transformed the way in which we produce food-especially food animals with all the attendant public health consequences and environmental consequences-I don't think the average person has made that connection yet. It's literally out of sight, out of mind.

So where are we headed?

Neff: It has been a slow-moving catastrophe, but there's every indication that we could hit some real serious bumps. In the meantime, there have been a lot of small, incremental efforts and policy changes. Many of those could lay the framework for what we need in the face of a really serious catastrophe. But we need to invest now in ramping them up.

Palmer: I'm naively optimistic but I do feel like the entrenched business interests have thwarted a lot of substantial change for so long that it's really going to be tough. And that makes it sometimes feel a little bit really long-term, you know, when are we going to reach that critical tipping point where we see some transformational change?

Nachman: I'm cautiously optimistic. I think we've seen the groundswell really, really increasing. And I think the rate of that increase has ramped up over the last few years.

If you could change one thing about the American diet, what would that be?

Neff: I would address the fact that in the U.S., we waste 30 to 40 percent of all food that's produced throughout the food system. That's not just at the consumer level. That's throughout, from production through consumption.

Nachman: I'm going to give you two. The first is, I wish that food packaging indicated the external costs associated with that particular food item. I think if folks had a better understanding of the health, environmental and ecological costs associated with what they choose to purchase and eat, the diet would change. And the other, as a parent of young children, I've been disgusted by the marketing of processed foods to children in schools. And I would be in favor of strict regulation prohibiting that.

Lawrence: I would change all of the policies that have promoted an inexpensive to the consumer but very costly to the environment, high-meat diet: the subsidies for corn and soybeans, which mostly go to feed animals instead of people; [and] the lax interpretation of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts that allows polluting to go on that is a central underpinning of factory farming.