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Can We Solve Planetary Hunger?: An Anthropology of Dietary Science

“We need to think of humanity as one of the key driving forces of global environmental change”. Human beings are changing ecosystems globally, and this is having a profound impact on our ability to feed ourselves. Researchers working on issues of global hunger must now take an increasingly dynamic approach to hunger because hunger is shifting. Hunger today is in transition, changing alongside human health and the global climate.

"Agricultural output per worker in developing countries doubled between 1991 and 2013, largely due to increases in agricultural efficiency."

"The share of people at risk from hunger worldwide is projected to drop from 12% to 5% by 2050."

IFPRI, 2017 Global Food Policy Report

Research parameters in international development today are changing; morphing into new forms of interdisciplinary research under new headings: One Health, Eco Health, Geo Health, Planetary Health. I ask why this ‘Planetary Health’ agenda is described by the Lancet Countdown as “the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century” and how this affects our understanding of hunger.

‘Planetary Health’ is defined as “the health of the human civilization and the state of the natural systems on which it depends” [Planetary Health Journal]. In this article, I take the concept of ‘Planetary Health’ and apply it to ‘hunger’; asking how emerging types of hunger are affecting researcher’s approaches to this complex subject. Whether discussing ‘Planetary Health’ or ‘Planetary Hunger’, the message is however clear: “The way we think about the planet needs to be revised, and with it the approach we take to interact with it.”

Today, “We need to think of humanity as one of the key driving forces of global environmental change” [Planetary Health Journal]. Human beings are changing ecosystems globally, and this is having a profound impact on our ability to feed ourselves. Researchers working on issues of global hunger must now take an increasingly dynamic approach to hunger because hunger is shifting. Hunger today is in transition, changing alongside human health and the global climate.

Two major processes are converging around the issue of hunger, one is the emergence of overnutrition related to increases in food production and consumption. The other is that these increases in food availability “may also have implications for the environment” [Wellcome]; contributing to climate change. The research community of the LIDC is rising to meet these emerging challenges. Championing the viewpoint that solving hunger entails a more ecological perspective and that nutrition entails both the health of the body and of the environment. LIDC researchers argue that achieving genuine planetary nutrition requires bringing together experts from agriculture, nutrition and public health – from science and society – to merge the old paradigms of quantitative/empiricist and qualitative/interpretive and realize a new era of properly interdisciplinary research.

As developing countries shift from a predominant state of undernutrition to overnutrition – and a ‘Double Burden’ of ill health emerges in which stunting occurs alongside obesity within a singular family – researchers need to be wary of static notions of hunger. Researchers investigating hunger today must include not only quantitative/empirical methods but also consider qualitative/interpretive understandings because today “The persistence of hunger is no longer simply a matter of food availability” [SDG#2]. The emerging research terrain of sustainable diets called for in the UN’s ‘Sustainability Development Goals’ require researchers to employ “a more complex evaluation process across sectors, disciplines and actors” [ANH p.2]. When hunger is no longer simply a result of a lack of food and we move from “eradicat[ing] poverty and hunger” to “achieving food security and improved nutrition and promot[ing] sustainable agriculture” we must hold a more expansive concept of what it means to be fed.

Quantitative data concerning hunger is often frustratingly poor and "only looks at nutrition in terms of calories.” In the field, undernutrition and overnutrition do not follow linear patterns. Being full does not imply an absence of hunger and (despite access to calorific food) there can be “wide variations between regions as regards to changes in prevalence of undernourished [and over-nourished] people” [Waage, P.47]. In response, researchers at the LIDC are increasingly considering life experiences and cultural beliefs of nutrition and hunger, because hunger today is becoming less a matter of a simple absence of food. In this emerging conceptual environment, ethnographies, case studies, films and recorded speech are increasingly used alongside quantitative analysis to research hunger and the “benefits of more sustainable diets.” [Lancet, P.1159].

The emergence of non-communicable diseases within developing countries and the shift from predominant undernutrition to overnutrition requires a new way of approaching hunger. This is reinforced when joined with the realization that “changing food systems may also have implications for the environment” [Wellcome]. When it becomes apparent that industrial agriculture may significantly affect our ability to grow and produce food and our ability to achieve nutrition, solving hunger cannot be viewed as the straightforward production of edible mass. Instead, a more ‘ecological’ approach to hunger is gaining ground within even the hard-core dietary science community. Scientific researchers are beginning to recognize that solving planetary hunger is not only a matter of how the world will feed us but how we will also feed the world. The metrics of objective human hunger begin to loosen when our hunger might feed as well as eat.

We are at a turning point in the global debate on how we solve world hunger. It is no longer enough to “eradicate [ ] hunger” and significant parts of the scientific community acknowledge that we will only achieve genuine nutrition through the promotion of sustainable food systems. Global hunger is no longer simply a result of lack of calories, and endlessly increasing quantity of food is enforcing a secondary ‘double burden’ of overnutrition and climate change upon the planet's most vulnerable people. An influential Lancet series, conducted in 2013, concluded that, “Future nutrition-specific interventions for the poor (e.g. supplementary foods for mothers and infants) could not deliver all the improvements in nutrition,” and that hunger could not ultimately be overcome by extra helpings of food.

Genuinely solving hunger relies on creating food systems that produce not only quantity but quality. It requires an approach to hunger that recognizes the failures of previous quantitative approaches (which reduce hunger to a linear in/out; yes/no) and can make sense of the fact that within one family we might see over and under nutrition simultaneously. Eating is a primal act, described by great thinkers from Freud and Lacan to Douglas and Bataille as the original marker of self and other, but what is us and what is other is today in flux. Tracking this change around the contemporary phenomenon of 'planetary hunger' demands striking new approaches to scientific research.

Over the coming years up until 2030, the question “Can we solve planetary hunger?” will require dynamic research approaches to what hunger means. Eradicating hunger through a relentless drive to increasing the production calories fails to deliver the sustainable diets people need. We are now at a turning point in the global debate on how we solve hunger and attention is increasingly being focused upon how production and consumption systems must work together to create not only quantity but quality too.

The LIDC is playing an active part in building an exciting new interdisciplinary research community. Thanks to a recent five million pound research grant from the Wellcome Trust, LIDC researchers from across quantitative and qualitative disciplines are collaboratively exploring unchartered territory. The SHEFS – ‘Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems’ – project for instance (led by LIDC's Alan Dangour (LSHTM) and including Bhavani Shankar (SOAS) and Barbara Haesler (RVC)) is busy compiling evidence on how food systems are interacting with the environment to positively or negatively affect human nutrition. The SHEFS programme is gathering case studies of food systems in India and South Africa to discover how qualitative experiences can reveal the complex interaction between food, the environment and health. The team are actively engaging policy makers and the public to start conversations and facilitate debate about the future of our diets.

A second project including LIDC researchers (also within the ‘Our Planet, Our Health’ Wellcome grant) is the The SAHDI Project. Focused on India, the project describes its research objectives as, “to understand the impact of diets in India on health and the environment; and to identify the changes to consumption patterns or production that are necessary to ensure sustainable and healthy diets.” This exciting project brings together multiple disciplines to challenge emerging problems of hunger and has a significant engagement activities including citizen science and school outreach programmes on the interactions of diets, agriculture, the environment and health.

The new challenges of hunger which are tied up in human interaction with the planet are directing researchers towards a number of points of engagement to challenges unhealthy behaviors. Among these activities the 'Our Planet, Our Health' grant has funded a series of plays by Theatre of Debate. These including the recent production 'Hunger’ which considers a boy's struggle with his diets and the emotional and environmental systems that surround dietary choices. The Wellcome Trust has also partnered with the influential Eat Foundation in Stockholm to employ chefs, cooks and activists in changing diets. The LIDC is at the center of the academic research of this exciting new project and is bolstered by sound analytical foundations previously established within the organization.

As the Wellcome funded 'Our Planet, Our Health’ project steps into gear, I predict many more exciting research engagement activities which involve the public in solving planetary hunger. This may be the best example of what I have called an anthropology of dietary science, where humans must seriously question how we are changing the material, objective, edible world. When we recognize that the parameters of hunger are not neatly set outside of our actions but instead are informed by the schemes and projects of our own making, we must consider how solving hunger relies on feeding the whole planet and not just our hungry bellies.


David was an intern at LIDC in March 2017 and is a recent graduate from SOAS. 

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