More than a decade ago, a wide-ranging conversation with my brothers started us on a journey to understand how our family-owned company could help fix the ailing global food system. At the time, droughts were causing famines. More than a billion people did not have enough to eat.
We set up a foundation, the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, to search for solutions. The Center holds forums, commissions research, lobbies for the end to wasteful agricultural subsidies and even advises our own pasta company on how it needs to change.
The challenges are immense. After years of decline, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) found in September 2018 that global hunger is back on the rise. Some 821 million people still do not have enough to eat. Even so, obesity is worsening: more than 672 million adults are now overweight. We waste one third of global food production, and our agrifood systems contribute to rising CO2 levels, causing extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, and storms.
The first step in reversing these trends is education. We must teach our children about sustainable nutrition. We must encourage them to eat better themselves, with more fruit and vegetables, whole grains, seafood, nuts and legumes, and olive oil, and less sugar. This Mediterranean diet is the healthiest diet. (The evolution of this scientific consensus is shown here.)
Governments must help by cutting subsidies to big, industrial farms. The connection between food and migration is stronger than one might imagine. Although most media coverage focuses on refugees fleeing armed conflict (such as in the case of Syria) or fleeing for greater economic opportunities (as is the situation in Nigeria and Pakistan), malnutrition often plays a decisive role. The Arab Spring uprising of 2010-2011 began with higher wheat prices that led to widespread “bread riots” followed by revolutions and refugee flows.
Most people fail to realize that what’s good for farmers in developed countries can be bad for others. High subsidies to European and American farmers have long contributed to poverty, malnutrition and emigration in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East by creating surpluses of food that is exported at prices so low that they force farmers and competing food producers in developing countries out of business. This is part of a vicious circle in which poverty and malnutrition drive migration.
The current response from developed countries to these complex, interdependent challenges of food, nutrition and migration is insufficient. It focuses too much on producing more food, with negative consequences for developing countries, as opposed to better, more nutritious food. It sees migration primarily as a political and security issue rather than addressing and managing the long-term demographic and policy drivers of migration.
Companies must play a role. They should support legislation when it benefits the long-term wellbeing of future generations. Barilla has begun to implement sustainable farming by teaming up with farmers on our most relevant raw material: the durum wheat needed to make pasta. Together, we combine the wisdom of our ancestors’ crop rotation with modern tools such as advanced meteorological forecasting technology. Farmers decrease their use of fertilizers and their land remains fertile. It is a win-win-win situation: farmers have lower costs, Barilla gets a better raw material, and the soil is healthier.
Where we have been unsuccessful so far is in generating a transformative and widespread shift towards a more sustainable global food system. This can change. If young people become more aware and conscious of the economic, social and environmental costs and benefits of our daily eating patterns, children will spread the culture of healthy eating and empower future generations to be agents of change.
When running our company, my brothers and I remain inspired by a saying our dad Pietro used a long time ago: “Give people food that you would give to your own children.” Today, following our journey, the message could be: “A food revolution to feed the children of tomorrow starts with education.” We invite others to join us in sparking this food sustainability revolution.
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