I recently met Kevin Walker through our mutual affiliation with the Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance. I was eager to hear about his new book – The Grand Food Bargain and the Mindless Drive for More – published by Island Press earlier this year, which came highly recommended by some friends.
Kevin has experienced agriculture broadly: he grew up on a diversified family farming operation in Utah. He worked in agribusiness, and as a USDA scientist (where he directed a center focused on emerging issues in animal agriculture). He’s also been a professor at Michigan State University. Kevin has worked overseas with international nonprofits, and as a consultant to the World Trade Organization.
In his book, he asks complex and difficult questions about abundance in an industrialized food system, and considers what we’ve lost in the process. Specifically, “Will the abundance we take for granted continue to serve us well?”
Q: What do you regard as the three or four most critical issues facing the American food system?
Since publishing the book, three things have become even more clear: changing direction, taking ownership, and increasing awareness.
We have to change direction. Until the late 19th century, coping with scarcity was a regular part of everyday life. Two lifetimes ago we came into abundance (at least in this country). Within two decades, we converted abundance into glut. Later came needless waste–up to 40 percent of food we produce and buy is never eaten. Our actions are eroding the forces that made abundance possible, including irreversible consequences to our natural environment. Unless we change course, what awaits us is a return to scarcity.
In terms of ownership, by taking food for granted, we’ve disowned how food remains the most important relationship we have with life itself. We have forgotten how seasons, climate, temperature, water, and soil work together in intricate ways to bring us food. Today, all we need to know is food’s location: the nearest grocery store or restaurant. All we need to do is bring money. We’re no longer invested in our own food system.
Awareness always precedes new behaviors and actions. We designed a food system around ourselves, as if nature and the environment were subservient to us. In reality, we’re not at the center. That belongs to the natural processes that bring us food. We can alter our surroundings through how we farm, but we cannot control what happens. Food comes from living organisms and such life is only possible because of the laws of nature and a life-enabling environment.
In many ways, our outlook towards food has parallels to medieval times, when people thought the sun revolved around the earth. Beliefs that we’re in charge and can control food are illusory.
Q: You come from a varied background – farmer, agribusiness, academic. How has that informed your work?
Growing up on a farm, looking back now, I realize more deeply our reliance on nature and the environment. I write about walking the orchards with my dad after a hard late-spring frost and examining tree blossoms. No matter what we did, whether or not the trees would be barren or bear fruit later in the summer always came down to nature and the environment. Nowadays, in our abundant food landscape, I think it’s easy to miss the contributions of nature.
I worked and lived overseas for many years. When I came back to the U.S. and went into a modern supermarket, I was taken back by some 50,000 products in one space. Outside that store, I could go in any direction and the same abundance would be repeated over and over.
I believe that we have forgotten the irreplaceable role food plays in our lives. Yet there are no free lunches. The energy that food provides to keep us alive comes at a cost.
Q: You have some big ideas to turn this around. Can you share those?
I do. At one time I thought that collaborating more closely with industry, engaging the university and scientists across different disciplines would be key. Along the way, I came to realize that everything starts with consumers and a simple question: do we value food? Food is the energy that keeps us alive. Yet look at our behaviors. Very little of what we invest in food goes towards actual food. What we value more through are actions are conveniences.
The transition from scarcity to abundance started at the personal level and was driven by values that changed behaviors. How long present abundance will last comes down to the same approach. Change starts with looking inward and asking questions such as, what value do I place on food? What role does food play in my life? What are acceptable behaviors on my part?
Q: How could this be made a broad consumer movement?
Our public policies, scientific expertise, resources being used, and collective mindsets are still stuck on ways to overcome scarcity instead of ways to steward abundance. Any movement starts by examining whether we will continue to look backwards or have the resolve to look forward.
Stewarding food means finding unacceptable a society where overconsumption and malnutrition live side-by-side. Or never reconciling food production and nutrition policies. Or letting the least healthy and most subsidized foods be called “nutrition assistance.”
It means fighting for a food system that values nutrition over cheap calories. And taste that derives from the diversity of nature instead survivalist’s cravings for sugar, fat, and salt.
It means not treating markets as if they are omniscient. Markets reflect what we value, which increasingly translates into more is always better while ignoring unwanted consequences.
It means calling for universities and scientists to work across fields of discipline to address the tough challenges we face today.
It means moving beyond that a calorie is just calorie. Where calories come from, how much they are processed, the fiber they contain, and how they are absorbed all make a difference.
Q: What are some individual actions/decisions we can make to shift our mindset?
Learn to value food. Never take food for granted. Don’t let the blessing of readily available food become the burden of food by not taking time to reflect on how food has enhanced your life.
Ask yourself: does the food system exist to serve me, or do I exist to serve the food system? If the former, own the food system. Your support and actions make it possible. If the latter, you’re “a bag for putting food into.” (George Orwell). Your role in life is to convert calories to dollars.
Appreciate what you have and this moment in time. Being alive when food is abundant is an historic anomaly, making up less than 0.01 percent of time since humans came on the scene.