03/22/2013 04:48 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Who Will Feed the World?

Twenty-eight courses. And wine. How the hell am I going to eat 28 courses?

My most recent meal at Noma, considered to be the best restaurant in the world by San Pellegrino's World's Fifty Best Restaurants, consisted of 28 courses, not to mention beverages, coffee and Nordic petit fours with my meal. That is a lot of food for a girl that some would describe as "ridiculously tiny."

But where does the food come from? Hint: The answer is not the grocery store. Despite the Portlandia parody of "farm to fork" fanatics, the reality is that most of us are completely disconnected to the actual sources and processes that create our daily meals. One could argue that there is a suspension of disbelief in some food manufacturing processes. (Do we really want to know how Cheetos are made?) As seen in the recent horse meat and LTBF, or "pink slime," meat scandals, food supply chains are incredibly opaque -- despite corporate assurances to increased transparency -- and often deliberately so.

And it seems we don't have enough of it to go around. According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization 2012 report, 870 million people across the world are undernourished -- 770 million of them are in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. On the other hand, in developed and highly developed countries, there's too much food. According to the Organization for Economic Development (OECD), as of 2012, 19 out of 34 of OECD countries have a majority of their populations diagnosed as clinically obese. Other food-related lifestyle diseases have also skyrocketed across the developed world. In the U.S. alone, 26 million have diabetes and approximately 79 million, or 35 percent of the U.S. population, have pre-diabetes, a precursor to Type 2 diabetes.


Considering the paradoxes of food in/security, it was only fitting that the question of "Who Will Feed Us" was the topic of René Redzepi's, head chef and owner of Noma, second MAD Mondays, a lecture and discussion series based on his annual MAD Symposium. With a panel of five speakers comprised of farmer Søren Wiuff; Professor of Agricultural Economics and Policy at University of Copenhagen Henrik Zobbe; sustainability expert and director of Terroir Symposium Arlene Stein; organic farmer Thomas Harttung; and chef/owner of Michelin-starred Relae, Christian Puglisi, Redzepi presided over a debate over who and how we will be fed now and in the future. In Redzepi's own words, "Why did we pick 'Who will feed us?'... It's because I'm quite confused about it and it's something I want to learn more about."

For organic farmer and community supported agriculture advocate Thomas Harttung, food security is the problem for now and in the future: "When René asked me who will feed us, the question really is how are we going to feed ourselves?" This is not for lack of food. As Arlene Stein pointed out, "In Canada, approximately 40 percent of food is grown not as food. It's grown for fuel." And what food we do have is wasted. As agronomist Henrik Zobbe stated, "There's a big difference in food waste in OECD countries versus poor countries. [In OECD countries] two-thirds of food waste is in ordinary households." But issues are not just limited to unintended science projects sitting in our refrigerators. According to Harttung, "There way we produce food today is incredibly wasteful. We are told it's efficient, but looking at the numbers, it's incredibly wasteful."

But is there a way to remedy those problems of food waste in food systems. One way is through the farmer him or herself. For the speakers, the Gordian knot is not so easy to split. For Harttung, "From a food availability perspective, we need to have healthy farms that can deliver food to local systems." Easy to say, but difficult to do. The consequences of mass production and Big Ag were clear for farmer and Noma vegetable purveyor, Søren Wiuff: "Fifteen years ago, I was a mass producer of carrots and I made less money than I do now." Zobbe seconded the cold harsh economics of conventional farming saying, "Farming is not very romantic. It's big business."

But distribution is also a large part of the problem. As retailers and consumers continually push for cheaper food, Arlene Stein admits that while farmers can grow better and closer to markets, ultimately, "Distribution is the most difficult thing to change in foods systems." Even with explosive growth of farmers markets, "they aren't very efficient." Describing the jam of trucks and lack of distribution options for local growers, Stein suggests that food hubs may be the answer.

While Harttung and Stein highlighted the infrastructural and supply chain issues with regard to food security, what does this mean when it comes to the actual food that people eat? Turn to the chef. In trying to become the first Michelin-starred restaurant to become organic certified, Puglisi explained his rationale for going organic, saying, "For me, I am writing a contract with the restaurant. When I had a child, I made a contract with my child. Organic food is better." But when challenged by Redzepi as to limitations on quality because of his choice to go 100 percent organic, Puglisi replied, "We want to have higher quality. The biggest demand is on flexibility. And flexibility is the opposite of banality." But to those who think that the coddled world of fine dining can't possibly change Big Ag, Stein thinks that both high and low have a mutual interest in supporting agricultural reform and farmers: "The hospitality industry has huge power and interest. We both have an interest in supporting them."

But maybe the largest question about how we ultimately change food systems lies not in economic or political interests, but one of values. For Harttung, this is the ultimate arbiter of what is going to change food systems to be more responsible for all: "I think we need to really think about aesthetics (in food production). The things we want to believe in don't go into GDP." And it's ultimately about everyday choices, says Puglisi, "If you want to spend your time on TV or go on Facebook, it's time away from the farm, from cooking, from eating."

So who will feed us? The answer was far from resolved at MAD Monday and will probably not be resolved any time soon. Issues of climate change, commodity volatility, environmental degradation and explosive population growth behoove us to solve these problems before we pay the ultimate price: No one will feed us.