Want to Change the Food System? 'Don’t Ask How to Feed the 9 Billion'

Want to Change the Food System? 'Don’t Ask How to Feed the 9 Billion'
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"Hunger and malnutrition are not about agriculture, they’re about economics” says Bittman.

The question of how to “feed the world’s nine billion,” a population estimate that looms ahead for the year 2050, is one that has defined a significant portion of what we talk about when we talk about food of late.

From the global initiatives of Expo 2015 in Milan (formerly the World’s Fair), the theme of which is “feeding the planet, energy for life,” to the newly formed Future Food 2050 (“how ingenuity will feed the world”), the population problem is inextricably linked to the hunger problem now more than ever, and yet, food journalist and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman says, “the ‘nine billion’ question is a red herring.”

In fact, the problem of global malnutrition — which also groups hunger and obesity in the same category — is not an issue of population, but rather an issue of poverty, says Bittman.

This week, on the heels of a collaborative essay in The Washington Post between Bittman and fellow food policy advocates Michael Pollan, Ricardo Salvador, and Olivier De Schutter in which the authors called for a national food policy that could save millions of lives and preserve countless resources, The New York Times hosted its inaugural Food for Tomorrow conference at Stone Barns, bringing together a wide spectrum of people from all areas of food policy — from food and beverage industry representatives to farmers, chefs, and journalists — to discuss the future of food and agriculture in America.

In his keynote speech, “How to Change the Food System and Feed the Nine Billion,” Bittman starts off by pointing out that these are two different problems, and that the second has an answer that is both abundantly clear and incredibly difficult to execute.

“The way to feed the nine billion is simple: eliminate poverty,” says Bittman. “The root issues of hunger are lack of equality and democracy, not lack of food supply. Hunger and malnutrition are not about agriculture, they’re about economics.”

Consider, for instance, what level of service you might experience as a traveler to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bittman suggests in this morning’s op-ed on the topic, Don’t Ask How to Feed the 9 Billion:

“Are you going to go hungry? Are you going to have a problem finding food? The answer, obviously, is ‘no.’ Almost all of you reading this… would be standing in that country with some $20 bills and a wallet filled with credit cards. And you would go buy yourself something to eat. The difference between you and the hungry is not production levels; it’s money. There are no hungry people with money; there isn’t a shortage of food, nor is there a distribution problem. There is an I-don’t-have-the-land-and-resources-to-produce-my-own-food, nor-can-I-afford-to-buy-food problem.”

Watch Bittman’s keynote speech below, and follow the events of The New York Times Food for Tomorrow conference:

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Karen Lo is an associate editor at The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter @appleplexy.