Our Food System Is Making Us and the Planet Sicker. Here’s What We Can All Do to Fix It

Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Mark Hyman
I don’t think it’s any secret that our current food system is, well, broken. It’s not okay—or even logical—that a hamburger costs less than a salad. It’s not okay that 70 percent of the world’s human use of water goes to animal production—not, in fact, humans. And that’s just one of the ways our current food system is negatively affecting the environment and climate.

People often tell me that when they think about the long list of problems our current food system—a term used to describe how we eat and where our food comes from—has created, they feel overwhelmed. I get that; it’s complicated. But that’s also not an excuse to do nothing. Whether you choose to acknowledge it or not, how you eat affects not only your body, but the planet—for better or for worse. That’s why I decided to write Food Fix: How to Save Our Health, Our Economy, Our Communities, and Our Planet—One Bite at a Time to give everyone—eaters, entrepreneurs in the food space, and policymakers—a blueprint to help make tangible steps toward change.

Maybe you think my book’s title is overblown. Can changing the way we eat really transform the economy, our communities, and planet? Well, yeah, it can. The truth is, we all have the potential to be changemakers.

Why our broken food system is ground zero for so many other problems

Let’s start with something that you’ve probably already thought about before: the connection between food and health. I’m not going to sugarcoat this (I don’t like sugar), but what and how we eat is a major contributor to the global epidemic of chronic disease. In 2019, The Lancet published an analysis of dietary risk factors in 195 countries based on the Global Burden of Disease study, the most comprehensive study of the effects of diet on health ever conducted. They found that a diet high in processed foods, refined grains, and sugar—which essentially describes the standard American diet—was responsible for 11 million deaths worldwide in the year 2017 alone.

Imagine if a viral outbreak killed 11 million people in a year. Governments would do everything in their power to stop it. But from where I sit, that urgency is not given to unhealthy foods causing chronic diseases and preventable deaths. The reason why our food isn’t given the same attention is because conditions like heart disease and cancer are seen as “noncommunicable,” aka not contagious; people think they just appear randomly due to genetics or are the result of poor judgment. We often unfairly blame the victim for these diseases, but the truth is that it comes down to the social, economic and political environment in which we live.

If we don’t start addressing the connection between unhealthy food and health, it’s going to destroy our economy, too. Treating chronic diseases—many of which are caused or exacerbated by food—will cost the global economy an estimated $47 trillion by 2030. It’s a number so unimaginably big that we could eradicate poverty with a check that size.

Then there’s the health of the planet to consider. Pollinators like bees—upon which 75 percent of our food production depends—are being killed by pesticides. Our soil health is deteriorating because of existing practices, like livestock grazing and pollution, which means the food we grow isn’t as nutrient-rich as it once was. Big agriculture (and the related deforestation to make room for new farms) are responsible for between a quarter and half of all greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere.

Riled up? Good. It’s time to take action.

The “food fix” we should all start making now

There are a lot of big, systemic changes that have to be made in order to make our food system better for ourselves and for the planet. What does change look like, exactly? As I see it, everyone will have access to nutritious food; these healthy foods won’t cost more than unhealthy foods; they’re sourced in a way that’s humane and not harmful to the environment. To get here, there are certain things everyone can do to help push that change into existence.

Many of the big changes that need to happen to fix our food system need to be political. Fifty-three percent of citizens voted in the 2018 midterm election—and that was actually the highest turnout in four decades. Who you choose to represent you in government can go a long way towards ensuring that our nation’s food policy is truly healthier and most sustainable. That’s why I urge everyone to research their congressional representatives and senators and see what their beliefs are when it comes to how we eat. For example, do they support taxing items on soda and junk food, which have shown to be effective at incentivizing people to make healthier food choices? The Food Policy Action website, which tells you what your Congress member has voted on various food and agricultural issues, is a great resource for finding this information.

You can also vote with your dollar by supporting businesses and restaurants aligned with your food values. Brands want to make money; if consumers are demanding they make a change, they’ll do it. Several big companies, led by Campbell Soup Company, announced in 2016 that they would start disclosing genetically modified ingredients on all their packages nationwide—a change that happened because consumers demanded it. Kellogg’s recently declared they would no longer allow the toxic herbicide glyphosate in their cereals, and General Mills committed to 1 million acres to regenerative agriculture (a way of farming that helps reverse climate change). That’s just a few examples of how brands could change the way they operate if it will affect their bottom line.

Think about changes you can make in your community, too. Someone I know saw that her kids weren’t being served healthy foods in their school cafeteria. She started thinking of ways that worked within the school budget to create healthier, kid-approved school lunches. It launched with a pilot program and is so successful that it’s now expanding into other schools in her district.

We didn’t get to this place of brokenness overnight, nor is it one person’s fault. Collectively, and over time, we can fix this. But it starts by taking action now.

Mark Hyman, MD, is a functional medicine doctor, author, the founder and director of The UltraWellness Center, and the Head of Strategy and Innovation of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. To learn more about his work and meet Well+Good’s other 2020 Changemakers, check out our profile of him here.

For more intel on sustainable food, here's your comprehensive guide on how to buy meat, dairy, and eggs in an ethical and environmentally-friendly way. And check out this plant-based food pyramid to learn how to live a plant-forward life.

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