Dr. Michael Hamm is a human nutritionist, interested in community food security and sustainable food systems. He is the Michigan State University (MSU) C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture and founding director of the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems. Hamm is a chapter author of the new report from The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food (TEEBAgriFood). This report evaluates the world’s agriculture and food systems while considering a range of social, human, and environmental dimensions across the value chain.
Previously a faculty member at Rutgers University’s Dept. of Nutritional Sciences, Hamm currently serves as the C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture and CRFS Senior Fellow at MSU.
Dr. Michael Hamm sat down with Food Tank to discuss his chapter in the new TEEBAgriFood report focused on human health, diets, and nutrition—the missing links in eco-agri-food systems.
Food Tank (FT): What’s the most interesting thing you learned from working on TEEBAgriFood?
Michael Hamm (MH): For most of my career I worked in the United States, but in the last three to four years I’ve engaged in more international work. There are many commonalities between food system issues in the global South and urban America, especially in the Midwest. To me, the most interesting aspect of TEEBAgriFood is the breadth and depth of the people working across the globe to improve the sustainability and human and societal aspects of the food system. There is a preconceived notion amongst policymakers that to be successful the developing world must evolve with the same agenda as the developed world. In fact, resource extraction in much of the global South is impeding communities, households, and individuals from being food and nutrition secure.
FT: What’s the most significant unintended consequence of our current system that usually gets ignored?
MH: Policymakers, funders, and donors ignore different issues. One of the biggest issues on the horizon is not necessarily a consequence of our current food system, but a consequence of global development and population migration, and that’s urbanization. The European Union, U.S., and Canada have 70 percent of their populations living in urban-influenced environments. In the global South and developing world, it is moving in that direction, creating challenges and implications for food and nutrition security. When supply chains are unable to handle the volume of food necessary to provide food security in urban areas, there are going to be problems. Urbanization and its implications on food, nutritional security, and global security are very significant. Prior to the last election, the U.S. State Department was concerned about food and nutrition security. Policymakers span a wide range too. Some are excellent and use data coupled with experience and community-based knowledge, while some are only concerned with furthering their national or private self-interests.
Funders and donors often make two mistakes. The first is thinking there’s a grand solution that can be applied universally, rather than basing strategies on data and principles integrated with community-driven knowledge. While every community is unique, there are often commonalities across them. Therefore, solutions may be similar, but will never be identical. The second mistake is when funders and donors find a new space, such as sustainable and local food systems, they don’t always complete their due diligence in the funding area to see what is already there and working, which often wastes money and creates animosity within the community.
FT: What’s the relationship between our eco-agri-food system and human health, both directly and indirectly?
MH: My Ph.D. is in human nutrition and I was trained as a nutritional biochemist. If we start with global dietary patterns, we know they are shifting towards the U.S. model of high meat and high calorie consumption, coupled with low fruit and vegetable consumption. With this shift, we are seeing increasing obesity and chronic diseases on the human side, and increased land and water degradation on the natural systems side. If the world shifts to a U.S. dietary pattern, while not embracing a plant-centric diet in the U.S. and EU, we will continue to degrade land, water, and human health.
FT: Do you think there are shared principles between the effort to reduce obesity and the effort to fight malnutrition?
MH: Absolutely. This reminds me of The Bread and Puppet Theatre, which was started in the 1960s on the border of Vermont. I have a poster of theirs in my office with the tagline, ‘The hunger of the hungry and the hunger of the overfed.’ It’s a great tagline for thinking about the shared principles of obesity and malnutrition. First, they both result from an unbalanced diet and an unbalanced dietary pattern. In one case, it’s an unbalanced diet that is heavy on excess calories, consuming too much meat and protein while not eating enough fruits and vegetables. On the other hand, it’s an unbalanced dietary pattern that also does not have enough fruits and vegetables, but also often too few calories and protein. In both cases, it’s an unbalanced dietary pattern that requires food and nutrition security to help reduce their impact and incidence. The ability to access and consume a healthy, culturally-appropriate diet is a prerequisite to reducing obesity and malnutrition. Both require a socio-economic environment that’s conducive to healthy eating and living, where people can easily access healthy food.
FT: What do you think are some of the key points of food loss in our current eco-agri-food system?
MH: Well, that depends on what part of food we’re talking about and where you are in the world. There was a study in 2013 from the World Resources Institute that showed about 60 percent of roots and tubers are wasted or lost, whereas only about 18 percent of milk is wasted or lost. There’s a large variation depending on what the food product is. Foods which are easily stored, like pulses or seeds, have lower losses, whereas transitory foods with high water content like fruits or vegetables are easily invaded by fungi and pathogens and often suffer higher losses.
Additionally, depending on where you are in the world, different parts of the supply chain suffer bigger losses. In the developed world, the largest percentage of loss is at the consumer. However, in the developing world, most of the loss occurs in the production, handling, and storage of food. First, there are significantly greater losses in the field—food that is never harvested or is destroyed by pathogens, insects, or large animals. Additional food is then lost during storage and transport as post-harvest management of crops is poor, storage containers may not deter rodents or insects, and/or they may not have an unbroken cold chain that keeps food cold while it is moved to market. But once the food gets to market there appears to be relatively little loss.
FT: How do you think changes to our current system can help us achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?
MH: The eco-agri-food system is part of the toolkit necessary to achieving all the goals as an integrated set. The TEEBAgriFood Report is looking to create a future where malnutrition, obesity, and chronic disease are eliminated, and there is a great reduction in acute diseases. It seeks to help eliminate poverty, provide economic growth, and connect the world through a web of cooperation across regions. The report promotes equal treatment and opportunities for women and strong educational systems. It also looks to create robust urban-rural relationships to ensure food security for all urbanites and spin-off industries, supplying healthy processed foods, and appropriate technology in the food system. It encourages policymakers to advocate for healthy dietary patterns, food and employment security, and the development of sustainable cities by reducing inequalities. The report helps identify strategies to create a cycle of responsible production and consumption by preserving freshwater and using renewable materials and energies. There can then be an understanding of the value of land, and the flora and fauna we rely upon. The global food system should not increase climate change but help resolve it. In other words, from a human health perspective, the SDGs provide a series of goals, the TEEBAgriFood Framework provides a system of analysis, and the network of food systems embedded in regions across the globe provide a strategy for securing a future ripe with healthy people. In my opinion, the AgriFood system links all the SDGs into a coherent package of strategies for improving the global situation.
FT: If there’s one thing that you want people to know about the TEEBAgriFood report, what would it be?
MH: I think the beauty of this report is that it’s a solid framework for what exists now, and it provides a strategy for identifying ways to move forward under different conditions. In my chapter and several other chapters, we talk about what the literature says about current conditions in a variety of ways, both sustainable and unsustainable practices, and health-promoting and health-destroying dietary patterns. However, it also provides a way to say ‘Okay, here’s what we have. Here are some various strategies. If we take an AgriFood system perspective on it, what are ways we are going to improve the situation in a number of dimensions?’ The report identifies the issues and a strategy for system improvement.
FT: Do you have any final thoughts?
MH: One thing I’ve become very sensitive to in both my domestic and international work is that people in communities have a lot of good ideas. There’s a real balancing act between the kind of knowledge that’s generated locally, such as community-based knowledge, and knowledge that exists through experts like those connected to TEEBAgriFood. I think people working in this realm, and people who are going to read this report, need to have both a sense of humility and a sense of urgency to move towards a sustainable global food system. I think the biggest challenge is convincing policymakers, donors, and funders that it is important to do that in a collaborative way, and not in a top-down approach. It’s important to think about the fact that everything that exists right now in the food system shouldn’t necessarily continue to exist.
I’m going to tell a little story. Charles Stewart Mott owned a bicycle wheel shop in Newark, New Jersey in the early 1900s. He was contacted by the founder of what became General Motors who said, ‘Would you move to Flint, Michigan and start making wheels for my automobiles?’ Which led to a transition period. Many businesses died, but Charles Stewart Mott’s business didn’t. He ended up becoming a great philanthropist in Flint and now the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation is one of the biggest in the United States. The challenge for us is keeping track of the fact that there are going to be things that survive, and there are going to be things that don’t, but there are always new opportunities during these transition periods. And we’re in a transition period now. We can either continue to destroy the earth, and food is one way we are doing that, or we can recognize that we need to preserve and rebuild ecosystems and the opportunities for doing so.
The goal of TEEBAgriFood is to more comprehensively determine the costs, benefits, and dependencies of agriculture and food production. What makes some produce less expensive in most supermarkets is in part the use of cheap—often subsidized—fertilizers and pesticides, but that retail price does not take into account hidden costs like environmental damage from runoff or human impacts on health and livelihood. Conversely, these prices do not recognize the positive benefits created by more sustainable forms of agriculture. To ensure the sustainability of agriculture and food systems, an important step is to account for the side effects, or externalities, through market mechanisms. TEEBAgriFood is creating a framework for looking at all the impacts of the ‘eco-agri-food’ value chain, from farm to fork to disposal, including effects on livelihoods, the environment, and health. This can help farmers, decision makers, and businesses more explicitly look at the impacts of different practices and policies