Food can fix it! – A non-foodie´s journey to save the world, starting at the plate

Written and submitted by Gunhild Stordalen

This guest blog post is by Gunhild Stordalen, co-founder of The Stordalen Foundation and initiator of the Eat Forum. Gunhild spoke on the TEDMED stage in 2016, and you can watch her talk here.


I am an environmentalist at heart, but a medical doctor by education. Life takes some strange turns sometimes, and in 2009 I found myself serving on the board of one of Scandinavia´s largest hotel companies. There, I started looking for ways to reduce the hotel´s environmental impact as well as to improve the health of guests and employees. Quickly, my eyes focused on food.

Photo credit: Linus Sundahl-Djerf
Gunhild and EAT have hosted several events during the UN General Assembly. In 2016 they led a discussion on urban food systems. Learn more here.

In an average hotel, food and drinks account for as much as 70% of the environmental footprint. Additionally, what we put on hotel restaurant menus can have a huge impact on human health. My question was therefore: “What food could we serve that would be healthier for people, better for the climate and better for the environment?”

I searched the literature, read reports and called experts everywhere. I found lots of papers published on health and nutrition, climate-smart agriculture, organic food and biodiversity. But I found literally nothing that could answer my simple question: “What types of food are both healthy and environmentally sustainable?”

Not being able to find a healthy and sustainable menu solution for some 190 Nordic hotels was quite frustrating. But the fact that no one had the answer for how to sustainably feed a healthy diet to our growing population was straight up shocking!

What we eat and how we produce it is already causing some of our greatest health and environmental challenges. While almost 800 million people are getting too little food, more than 2 billion are getting too much, which causes them to become either overweight or obese. Another 2 billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. Increasingly, poor diets are posing a bigger threat to global health than tobacco, alcohol and drugs.

At the same time, the agricultural sector is the single biggest driver of both climate change and environmental degradation. It causes more than 30% of the planet’s loss in biodiversity and consumes 70% of the world´s fresh water. The meat industry alone is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all the world´s cars, planes and ships combined. And, around one third of all food we produce is either lost or wasted.

Today, we produce enough calories to feed everyone, but those calories are unequally distributed and hugely inefficient. With business as usual, current population growth and diets trend toward more meat and animal-sourced foods; feeding the world’s population will mean increasing food production 50% by 2050.

There is no way we will reach the Paris Climate Agreement or the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals without a radical shift in the way we eat and produce our food. Getting it right on food is our great opportunity to get a lot right for both the health of people and the planet.

In 2013, I founded the EAT initiative with professor Johan Rockstrom and the Stockholm Resilience Center as our main academic partner. Last year, British research charity Wellcome Trust joined us, and together we established EAT Foundation. Gathering international leaders from science, politics, business and civil society, EAT is a global platform that aims to help speed up food systems transformation. Through our partnerships and collaborations, we create pathways and measures to make healthy and sustainable food choices accessible, affordable and convenient—for everybody, everywhere.

Photo credit: Linus Sundahl Djer
The EAT Stockholm Food Forum gathers leaders from science, business, politics and civil society, including chefs and activists. At last year´s conference, Jamie Oliver and Gunhild joined forces to get more food professionals involved in a healthy and sustainable food revolution.

I am a hard-core optimist. Even more so after seeing the rapidly growing awareness on the interlinkages between food, health and sustainability challenges in just these four years since I started EAT. I meet business leaders, investors, politicians, UN agencies and consumer organizations that are all ready for change, and I am thrilled to see healthy, green initiatives and innovations popping up everywhere!

Together, we can fix the food system! Of course, significant work still remains, from setting science-based targets to creating coherent policies, and in implementing new business models that are “all good” and not only “less bad”. But right now, the bottlenecks are not lack of evidence, lack of political will or lack of technology. The main obstacles are lack of collaboration and co-creation. I started EAT to connect the dots. That’s why I am proud to work with leaders and game-changers that work together for a healthier, happier and more prosperous future for all.

I´ve never been a foodie. To be honest, I can hardly cook. But I love food because it represents the closest thing we will get to a silver bullet for healthy people on a healthy planet. Whether you are the most powerful man in the world, sit on the board of a hotel chain or you simply prepare dinners for your family and friends, we all have a role to play. What better way to bring people together for a better world than over great food!

Healing ourselves, and healing our world

Many of us have heard the adage, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” At TEDMED, we embrace this philosophy; every year, we convene extraordinary people and ideas from across different disciplines who are all united in shaping a healthier future for our planet and its 7 billion people. And, at TEDMED 2016, we are honored to feature such committed, passionate citizens in our program.

One such actor is TEDMED Hive Innovator and EpiBiome CEO, Nick Conley. According to Nick, he founded EpiBiome in response to multi-drug-resistant “superbugs” that threaten to reverse the last one-hundred years of surgical advances if new antibiotics are not discovered, due to the risk of post-operative infection that is too high to justify all but the most necessary surgical procedures. In search for a substitute for antibiotic treatment, EpiBiome has taken to the sewer to explore bacteriophages – viruses that infect and destroy specific bacteria ­– as a natural and effective alternative. According to Nick, phages outnumber bacteria 10:1 and kill half the bacteria on the planet every two days. Importantly, some phages have already received “Generally Recognized as Safe” status from the FDA for use on food intended for human consumption.

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Image provided by Kinnos.

Meanwhile, TEDMED Hive Innovator Kevin Tyan, along with his co-founders at Kinnos, has taken a different approach to fighting infection. Recognizing the urgent need to improve decontamination in response to the Ebola epidemic, Kevin and his co-founders realized that regular bleach disinfectant wasn’t enough to protect health workers. Although bleach has been recommended by the World Health Organization as the best and most cost efficient disinfectant for surfaces contaminated by infectious disease, its effectiveness is limited by its transparency and the fact that it’s easy to miss spots and leave gaps in coverage. It also bounces off waterproof surfaces, much like rain bounces off an umbrella.

For Kevin, this was a challenge begging to be tackled head on. He and his co-founders created Highlight ­– a patent-pending powdered additive that colorizes disinfectants. This makes it easier to visualize, ensure full coverage, and adhere to surfaces. The color is only temporary, however, and fades once decontamination is complete.

Another TEDMED speaker who is not only deeply committed to protecting our health, but also that of our planet, is Gunhild Stordalen, Founder and President of the EAT Foundation. Gunhild believes that many of our major global health and environmental challenges are inextricably linked to food: what we eat, how our food is produced, and all that is wasted. With the knowledge that there is no single solution to this problem, the EAT Foundation works toward stimulating interdisciplinary research and catalyzing action across sectors to enable us to feed a growing global population with healthy food, from a healthy planet.

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Image provided by Caitlin Doughty.

Mortician and TEDMED speaker Caitlin Doughty is also deeply concerned about the health of our planet – particularly, the environmental risks of current burial practices. According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Southern California, traditional burials – where an embalmed body in a wooden coffin is sometimes placed in a concrete or metal vault ­– require more than 30 million board feet of hardwood, 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete and over 800,000 gallons of carcinogenic formaldehyde embalming fluid every year. Caitlin’s proposed solution? Eco-friendly death and burial practices, such as water cremation and natural composting. To that end, in 2012, Caitlin founded Undertaking LA, a progressive funeral home that provides alternative, green burial options.

Though they are taking wildly different approaches, these speakers and innovators are committed to a common goal – healing our world. We are inspired by their work, and are excited to see them speak at TEDMED 2016. We hope you’ll join us there.