Getting a healthy meal into yourself and your family can be challenging enough. Try multiplying that by seven billion. Now we've got issues every step of the way -- what food we produce, how we produce it, how we distribute it, what we eat and how we waste it. By 2050, our population is predicted to grow by two billion more. That's nine billion people on the planet and all of us hungry. The planet will not be getting any bigger. Or any more fertile. So it's up to us to be smarter about growing, sharing, eating and preserving our food.
Worldwatch Institute and the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition are working together to grapple with these grand scale issues. At "Eating Planet," a recent symposium in New York, they gathered sustainable farming and food policy experts to share their findings along with some other sobering stats.
Among the seven billion of us, one billion are overfed and obese and suffering all the attendant miseries -- cancer, diabetes, heart disease, rocketing medical costs, plus impacts on the family and the workplace which are distinctly not fun. On the other side of the continuum, the world has one billion underfed people, those struggling with poverty, food insecurity and outright hunger. Also not fun.
Here's what's amazing -- these two problems have a single solution. "Agriculture is the answer," as Danielle Nierenberg, director of Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet project, put it. Growing indigenous crops empowers the people who need it most. The foods that best sustain the planet, with the highest yield and the lowest carbon footprint are the same foods that best sustain us -- vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds -- your plant-based diet greatest hits.
The prime contributor to obesity and obesity-related illnesses is the same one that sucks up land and water and grain -- grain that could feed us. We're talking meat. As Nierenberg and Edible Manhattan publisher Brian Halweil said in a recent New York Times op-ed, "Meat remains the most energy- and resource-intensive ingredient in our collective diets." So rather than raising more beef that will make more people more obese at a cost to the environment, how about we dedicate that precious land and water to benefit another precious resource -- us?
"Produce is the most important thing to grow and eat," said Ellen Gustafson, of Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition's advisory board and founder of 30 Project, the sustainable food nonprofit.
Eating Planet's numbers are staggering, but what really moved all the members of the panel are people, from an African woman who put aside her dignity to pick up a few grains of maize to feed her family to the women of SEWA, who organized their own labor force, giving voice and power to India's vast numbers of impoverished, self-employed women.
We take abundant food for granted here. We take our own power for granted, too. We shouldn't. As the One Campaign's sustainable agriculture and food aid policymaker Kelly Hauser said, when you call your congressman or even e-mail, Washington pays attention. Your voice makes a difference.
I'll add what you choose to eat makes a difference, too. All seven to nine billion of us deserve to be nourished. If just a fraction of the seven billion of us speak up more and eat meat less, we can save -- and nourish -- the world. It all starts with you -- your plate, your voice, your choice.
Missed the "Eating Planet" symposium? Read the book -- Eating Planet 2012.
Feed the Planet Pasta with Celery, Kale and Walnut Gremolata
Gremolata is a mess of chopped herbs, lemon zest, olive oil, breadcrumbs or nuts, with a nubbly texture somewhere between a relish and sauce. Here it's tossed with nutrient-rich kale, celery and whole wheat angel hair for a summer dish bright with flavor, color and crunch.
7 ounces whole wheat angel hair pasta (approximately half of a 13.25-ounce package)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 pinch red pepper flakes (about 1/8th teaspoon)
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 bunch flatleaf parsley, chopped (about 1 cup, loosely packed)
1/2 cup walnuts chopped
zest of 1 lemon plus 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1-1/2 cups celery -- stalks and leaves -- sliced thin
1 bunch kale, chopped into skinny ribbons
sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
In a small bowl, mix together the chopped garlic, walnuts, grated lemon zest and chopped parsley.
Bring water to boil in a large pot. Add angel hair and cook according to package directions until just al dente -- not al mushy -- approximately 5 to 7 minutes. Reserve 1 cup of cooking water from the pasta -- it gets starchy and silky and helps thicken the sauce. Drain the rest of the pasta.
In the same pot, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add red pepper flakes and the garlic-parsley-lemon zest-walnut mixture, stir until it sizzles and smells toasty and terrific, about 3 minutes. Add the pasta and chopped kale. Remove from heat and toss. The heat from the pasta and gremolata will make the kale tender without additional cooking.
Add the quarter cup of lemon juice, the cup of pasta water and celery. Toss again to combine. Season generously with sea salt and pepper.
Serve warm, room temperature or slightly chilled. Simple but sturdy enough for a pot luck.
Serves 4 to 6. May be doubled, tripled, or do the math and feed 7 billion.