Food Systems is "a really interesting, exciting and frustrating space to work in"
A conversation with Jessica Fanzo, Professor of Climate and Food at Columbia Climate School
I’ve had the good fortune to work with five amazing editors so far in my career - Jeremy Torr, Tim Large, Laurie Goering, Megan Rowling, and most recently, Ludo Hekman. To borrow Tolstoy’s words, good editors are all alike; bad editors are bad in their own ways. To me, these five share characteristics that make them great: thoughtful, supportive, curious, nurturing, and devoid of ego.
Of course, they also have solid journalistic skills - great writers who always improve your copy, a great nose for news, the ability to synthesise technical topics and mountains of information into something tangible and understandable, and spot-on editorial judgment. But it is the soft skills that I remember most about them.
Some might scoff, but I truly believe that when an editor trusts your work, when you feel empowered, and when you both share the same goals, there is alchemy. And that’s what I had for the past 2+ years working with Ludo, who was integral in setting up Lighthouse Reports’ Food Systems Newsroom.
Today is his last day - he goes back to his Dutch news roots - so this is a public shoutout to show my appreciation for all that he’s done, not just for me but also for my colleagues, and also to his predecessors who have shaped me to be the journalist I am today.
I first met Jessica Fanzo a little over five years ago at a conference in Bangkok. She was the co-chair of the Global Nutrition Report and a professor at Johns Hopkins University.
"Diets are one of the top risk factors of morbidity and mortality in the world - more than air pollution, more than smoking," she told me. Her next comment, “What we're eating is killing us,” made it to the headline. That 2018 interview also inspired me to pitch and lead a package of stories the next year titled “Death by Diet”.
Since then, Jess has been one of the food systems experts that I turn to regularly for thoughtful insights. She also appeared in my Dazzling Dozen issue earlier this year.
Her blog - The Food Archive - is a great resource if you’re interested in these topics or just for her musings. This piece from November about her decision to travel less is a lovely read on its own, particularly for fans of Tom Waits. So yeah, I’m a big fan.
In July, Jess joined Columbia Climate School as a Professor of Climate and Food after six years at Johns Hopkins as the Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Food Policy and Ethics. So I thought time is ripe for a catch up to find out what she’s currently working on, her thoughts on COP28, and what advice she has for those wanting to take part in food systems transformation.
The below conversation has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
Q: COP28 just finished. What are your thoughts on the outcomes, particularly on what it could mean for food systems?
A: I mean it's taken 28 COPs for them to even get fossil fuels on the agenda. It was interesting that happened in a country that is very fossil fuel-dependent. Loss and damage wasn't on the agenda a couple of years ago. Now there's actually some money although it's nowhere near enough. So I think these steps are important.
Three years ago, food was not even discussed. Now there’s a lot of side event around food. There was the declaration signed, I think, by 158 countries. In the final (Global Stocktake text) food was mentioned, but it's quite weak language. And food is only in the adaptation section of the text, not in the mitigation. Still, it's getting there… let's hope it doesn't take 28 more COPs to get food firmly in there.
I guess my larger issue with COPs is… you know, nothing's binding and there are no penalties if you don't achieve these goals or agreements. So I'm always a bit skeptical because I'm very nervous about the timescale that we need to actually take action. I'm nervous around the vagueness of the language.
Because with fossil fuels, it's pretty clear what the alternative is: down scaling coal, moving towards renewables, thinking about electricity, buildings, infrastructure, etc. With food, moving towards more sustainable food systems, what does that mean in every country?
That's where we as the food community need to get very tangible for policymakers. We’re pushing for food systems action, but it's the “how” they're going to want. The science community, the advocates, those that work and practice around food systems are really going to need to help governments - if they do agree to this - what exactly does sustainable food systems mean in practice to stay below 1.5 or 2 degrees?
So we need to get way more specific. I was watching some of the side events. It's all vague. If I were a policymaker, I’d be like, “Yeah, of course, we want sustainable food systems. But what does that mean for the United States? And how much is it going to cost us?”
Q: Do you think it’ll be very much a case-by-case basis? Or is there at least an overarching understanding of what are sustainable food systems even though individual actions might be different depending on whether you're Burma or Pakistan or the US?
A: I think we have some best practices. But the problem with food… particularly food production.. is that it’s so reliant on the agro ecosystem of what you're growing food from. And there are different diets in different places. So we do have some broad areas, but there's going to need to be some specificity if you are Singapore who's completely reliant on food coming from other places versus Brazil, which produces a lot of its own food. It really becomes very context dependent.
The other issue, the big elephant in the room that we need to come to grips with, is this idea that it is going to be very hard for any country to agree on the demand side of shifting diets, because no country is going to sign up to a big push on moving people towards plant-based diets.
I'm currently watching this Ken Burns documentary on prohibition. You’ve got to watch this thing because it's just crazy that the United States outlawed alcohol in the 1920s. But the whole point is you can't govern morality. People are gonna drink no matter what. And I think countries are very alert to, “We are not going to tell people what to eat and we're not going to put in place a policy where they are penalised if they do so”.
So I think in future COPs it will become very apparent what we can do around methane emission reduction, or renewable energies across food systems. But when it comes time to the other large piece around diets, no go. And so what do we do about that? Because diets are big contributors to greenhouse gases!
Q: I guess it would have to be nudging behavioural change, right. if you can't legislate it?
A: Yeah, this is all going to be community, municipality, nudging, education. If you look at the United States as one example, there's been big shifts and diets towards more plant-based foods. The days of meat and potatoes on your plate, you don't see that as much anymore.
So diets can change. People do change their behaviours. It just takes a long time. Some of that will be through the health sector - doctors and health practitioners promoting healthier diets to stave off cardiovascular disease, cancer and so on.
I think the COP can only do so much for food. There's a whole system's approach and other sectors that have to come to bear on the whole diet side and demand side.
Q: You come from nutrition background and you’ve always talked about diets. Is this something you're going to continue doing in your work in Columbia?
A: Yeah. My perspective and point is always how can we improve human health and human diets in the context of environmental sustainability? We're doing two things really. One is trying to build out food systems science. We've got the Food Systems Dashboard and the Food Systems Countdown and the paper and report are going to come out next week.
I co-chair that with Mario Herrero at Cornell University, Lawrence Haddad at GAIN, and Jose Rosero Moncayo who is the head of stats at FAO. So that's a big 50-indicator framework to allow countries to monitor the performance of their food systems so they know where to take action. There are about 60 collaborators.
This other set of work is really on how is place and climate influencing access to diets and how our diets are changing in the face of climate change among populations where they live. So like the Mekong River in Cambodia changing with climate, what does that mean for riverine communities’ diets?
I'll keep doing that kind of work. And then some of this global stuff like the EAT-Lancet 2.0, and we can talk about that.
Q: I've got a question related to EAT-Lancet but first, these 50 indicators you talked about… Is this the first time there will be such a comprehensive set of indicators?
A: Yeah. So we’ve got five working groups: diets, health & nutrition, environment, natural resources & production, livelihoods, poverty & equity, governance, and resilience. These 60 collaborators got into these working groups, and they selected about 10 indicators in these five areas that the world could track over time.
So this first paper and the policy report that come out next week will be like, “These are the indicators. This is their state in the world.” And really, the big message is that no country has a monopoly on good food systems performance and every country can learn from each other.
Next year, we're going to set thresholds to each of these so people know if they are - for lack of a better term - on- or off-track across these indicators. It's not a perfect set of 50 indicators, but at least it gives you a sense, looking at the holistic nature of food systems, of how countries are doing. It was an attempt to try to create an accountability mechanism.
Q: We first met five years ago when you were the co-chair of the Global Nutrition Report and you gave me great quotes. When did you first notice these linkages around Food, Nutrition and climate?
A: Oh, yeah, the “What we're eating is killing us”. I mean, I think (I’ve been noticing this) forever, you know? That's the reason why I got into nutrition and did degrees in nutrition because particularly in America, the state of diets is just so dismal.
Early on in my food policy career, I realised how hard it is to get your head around this space because it's really hard to regulate food. It's everywhere. You walk into a hardware store and you see food when you're picking up a hammer.
It's ubiquitous, and it's not one product. It's not a cigarette. It's just so many products and variations. And that's what makes it incredibly challenging, but incredibly interesting to work in, as you know, as someone who's been writing about food for a long time.
And the diet part, I think I'm particularly interested in because it's the point in the food system that everybody engages in every day. It's that point of choice of what you're going to eat or buy or order, and then you're consuming it and to me, that is such an interesting space, because we all engage in that every day.
When you take that spoonful, fork-ful, chopstick-ful or handful of that food, so much stuff - politics and policy and hard work or industrialism - has gone into that bite. So to me, that's the point where you can start to look at the food system, from waste when you don't consume it, to who grew it, and why is this orange, and spicy, and it doesn't look like any kind of food I ever thought of? Oh, it's a Cheeto. Like, how did they make this?
I just think the diet space is the space where we all very much tangibly relate to the food system. And that's what's so interesting to me.
Q: Have you always been interested in in food systems and nutrition ever since you were young? Or is this something that that came to you later in life?
A: I've always been interested in food. I come from an Italian-American family. Food is everything. I was just writing in my journal like, when you meet people that don't enjoy food and they just eat to get it out of the way and I've always found that very odd. (THIN: Yeah, I cannot relate.)
I was always in nutritional science. I did my bachelor's in agriculture. I did my Masters and PhD in Nutritional Sciences, the molecular nutrition. So I was a bench scientist. I was really trying to understand cellular pathways towards better nutrition and going out and looking more at systems - cells are system in and of itself and a very complex one by the way - that didn't come to me till much later until I started working with Jeffrey Sachs at the Earth Institute.
He's very much a systems… broad, big, development economist. He really exposed me to looking at nutrition through multiple sectors. It's one thing to think multi-sectorally but another to actually engage with different sectors. He really offered me that opportunity that was really important in my career.
Q: You’ve since been involved in lots of really important reports, including the EAT-Lancet Commission. There was a lot of blowback when the report came out, with the criticism being that it discounted diets in poor countries, that it is too narrow, that it is unrealistic, etc. What do you think of those criticism?
A: Valid. For sure. I think the Eat Lancet 2.0 that's happening now is going to address some of those issues. There's a whole group working on justice implications for this food system transformation. I think what the EAT-Lancet attempted to do was to set up scientific targets for diets and planetary boundaries through the food space. Someone had to do it. Someone had to attempt it.
Now, was it flawed? Of course. We know that there's not one diet, there's many diets. We know scientific evidence can only go so far and there's lots of other elements to consider. Should we have had more colleagues from Latin America, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa? Absolutely. I think the second commission addresses that. Should we have put an economic cost to this? Yes, the Food Systems Economic Commission is doing that and that'll come out soon.
But I think the big thing I hope that will be done in this second EAT-Lancet Commission is around justice. Is someone's going to lose out if the world transforms? Who is it and how do we prioritise those who might be left behind? Or might be more marginalised or disadvantaged by this transformation? We didn't do that in the first one. It's not easy to do that analysis of what are going to be the trade-offs. But I think this next commission it will have to do that.
I think there's a little bit more careful consideration of the heterogeneity of the issues. It's a little bit more nuanced.
Q: When is it expected to be out?
A: I think it'll come out early 2025.
Q: Just two more questions. You’ve sort of answered the first one already, but I'm going to ask you anyway. What excites you about working on fruit systems?
A: When you were talking at the beginning about the work that you're doing in this investigative space? There's so many avenues to try to understand across food systems, right? There's so many so much nuance and complexity. I like the scientific complexity of working in food system and I think because we all eat food every day, there's this personal element to it.
And I think one of the biggest drivers for me and the most exciting things is how do we get food more on the international policy map? How do we make it so food is considered so important that governments will do whatever they can to ensure that their populations and citizens are food secure? How do we get food to that level? And it's never really gotten to that level.
So I always think about the COVID pandemic. I always thought governments move slowly but man, they moved fast. Whether it was the right thing to do: shutdowns, curfew, export bans, whatever it was, it was quick. How can we get them to be quicker in food responses instead of being very laissez faire.? And govern food systems better? So to me, that's a really interesting, exciting and frustrating space to work in.
Q: What advice do you have for individuals who care about food and climate and want to change their behaviour?
A: Eat healthier for your own health, but there is also benefits to the planet. Learning where your food is grown. Learning about farmers and how difficult it is to be a farmer. Whether it's industrial scale or small scale, it is really difficult to be a farmer or rancher right now. Looking at your labels and seeing where the food is coming from. Explore where you're getting your food from.
And if you can help out, whether it's urban gardens or supporting the local food bank around the corner. A lot of people are still struggling right now and food prices remain pretty high. World Food Programme accepts donations.
I think these things matter, not only for understanding your own health and wellness and the environment, but also for just community cohesion. We've got tons of urban gardens around the city in New York, in such a densely populated place. There's a place like five doors up from me that have chickens, they're growing tons of food and it's a place where people come together, folks all colour, creed, income status. Places where people can learn about food and where they get their food that really matters.
Can you get people to care about climate change, which might seem far off? It's difficult. But I think that far off is not going to be that far off anymore.
Reuters, New York Times Top List of Fossil Fuel Industry’s Media Enablers - DeSmog & Drilled
Amy Westervelt, Matthew Green, and Joey Grostern took aim at some of the best-known and trusted English-language media outlets - Bloomberg, The Economist, The Financial Times, The New York Times, Politico, Reuters, and The Washington Post - that “regularly lend their reputations to the fossil fuel industry’s messaging on climate-related topics”.
Both Matt and I used to be in the Reuters family, so it’s particularly painful to read this: “Reuters goes a step further, with marketing staff creating custom industry conferences explicitly designed to remove the “pain points” holding back faster production of oil and gas.”
Bartosz Brzeziński and Louise Guillot on the threats, harassment, and disinformation, both covert and overt, that dogged parliamentarians like Sarah Wiener, a green MEP who led negotiations on reducing pesticide use in European farms. It is an infuriating read charting how short-termism has won. For now.
COP28: Key outcomes agreed at the UN climate talks in Dubai - Carbon Brief
If you want to take a deep dive into what went down at COP28, you can’t do better than this nearly-20,000-word (yes, you read that right) summary in plain English from the Carbon Brief team.
Whether your interest is in food systems, global stocktake, loss and damage or China’s place in the negotiations, you can easily navigate the different sections.