EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the introduction to Dr. Mark Hyman's latest book, "Food Fix." To purchase the book, click here.
It is a wonderful feeling to recognize the unity of a complex of phenomena that to direct observation appear to be quite separate things.
— Albert Einstein
It is . . . our apparent reluctance to recognize the interrelated nature of the problems and therefore the solutions that lies at the heart of our predicament and certainly on our ability to determine the future of food.
— Prince Charles
There is one place that nearly everything that matters in the world today converges: our food and our food system — the complex web of how we grow food, how we produce, distribute, and promote it; what we eat, what we waste, and the policies that perpetuate unimaginable suffering and destruction across the globe that deplete our human, social, economic, and natural capital.
Food is the nexus of most of our world’s health, economic, environmental, climate, social, and even political crises. While this may seem like an exaggeration, it is not. The problem is much worse than we think. After reading Food Fix you will be able to connect the dots of this largely invisible crisis and understand why fixing our food system is central to the health and well-being of our population, our environment, our climate, our economy, and our very survival as a species. You will also understand the forces, businesses, and policies driving the catastrophe, and the people, businesses, and governments that are providing hope and a path to fixing our dysfunctional food system.
But why would a doctor be so interested in food, the system that produces it, and food policy?
As a doctor, my oath is to relieve suffering and illness and to do no harm. As a functional medicine physician, I was trained to focus on the root causes of disease and to think of our body as one interconnected ecosystem.
Our diet is the number one cause of death, disability, and suffering in the world. Our food has dramatically transformed over the last 100 years, and even more radically over the last 40 years, as we have eaten a diet of increasingly ultraprocessed foods made from a handful of crops (wheat, corn, soy). If poor diet is the biggest killer on the planet, I was forced to ask, what is the cause of our food and the system that produces it? This led to a deep exploration of the entire food chain, from seed to field to fork to landfill, and the harm caused at each step of the journey. The story of food shocked me, frightened me, and drove me to tell this story and to find the possibility of redemption from the broken system that is slowly destroying the people and things we love most.
Our most powerful tool to reverse the global epidemic of chronic disease, heal the environment, reverse climate change, end poverty and social injustice, reform politics, and revive economies is food. The food we grow, how we grow it, and the food we eat have tremendous implications not just for our waistlines but also for our communities, the planet, and the global economy.
Chronic disease is now the single biggest threat to global economic development. Lifestyle-caused diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer now kill nearly 50 million people a year, more than twice as many as die from infectious disease. Two billion people go to bed overweight and 800 million go to bed hungry in the world today. One in two Americans and one in four teenagers have pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes.
Lobbyists’ influence over policy makers has put corporations, not citizens, at the center of every aspect of our food system, from what and how food is grown to what is manufactured, marketed, and sold. When money rules politics, it results in our current uncoordinated and conflicting food policies, which subsidize and protect and facilitate Big Food’s and Big Ag’s domination of our food system to the detriment of our population and our environment. Big Ag and Big Food co-opt politicians, public health groups, grassroots advocacy groups, scientists, and schools and pollute science and public opinion with vast amounts of dollars and misinformation campaigns. The consolidation and monopolization of the food industry over the last 40 years from hundreds of different processed-food companies, seed companies, and chemical and fertilizer companies into just a few dozen companies make it the largest collective industry in the world, valued at approximately $15 trillion, or about 17 percent of the entire world’s economy. And it is controlled by a few dozen CEOs who determine what food is grown and how it is grown, processed, distributed, and sold. This affects every single human on the planet.
Our children’s future is threatened by an achievement gap caused in large part by their inability to learn on a diet of processed foods and sugar served in schools. Fifty percent of schools serve brand-name fast food in their cafeterias and 80 percent have contracts with soda companies. Food companies target children and minorities with billions in marketing of the worst “foods.”
Poverty, social injustice, and violence are perpetuated by the harmful effects of our nutritionally toxic and depleted food environment on children’s intellectual development, mood, and behavior. Violent prison crime can be dramatically reduced by providing a healthy diet to prisoners. Our national security is threatened because our young adults are not fit to fight and not eligible for service, and many of our soldiers are overweight.
We are also depleting nature’s capital — capital that, once destroyed, may only be able to be partially reclaimed. The threat is not only to our health and our children’s future, but also to the health of the planet that sustains us. Our industrial agricultural and food system (including food waste) is the single biggest cause of climate change, exceeding all use of fossil fuels. Current farming practices may cause us to run out of soil and fresh water in this century. We are destroying our rivers, lakes, and oceans by the runoff of nitrogen-based fertilizers, which is creating vast swaths of marine dead zones. We waste 40 percent of the food we produce, costing more than $2.6 trillion a year in global impact.
There is a solution, a food fix. Across the globe there are governments, businesses, grassroots efforts, and individuals who are reimagining our food system, creating solutions that address the challenges we face across the landscape of our food system. This book both defines the problems and maps out the policies, business innovations, and grassroots solutions, providing ideas for what we can each do to improve our health and the health of our communities and the planet.
The imperative to transform our food system is not just medical, moral, or environmental, but economic. Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, the dean of Tufts School of Nutrition Science and Policy, injects hope into what may seem like an overwhelming problem and highlights the “waves of innovation and capital now sweeping food and allied disciplines, from agriculture to processing to restaurants and retail, and in healthcare, personalization, mobile tech, and employee wellness. Catalyzing this multi-billion-dollar revolution, and ensuring its rapid trajectory is evidence-based and mission-oriented, is an essential opportunity and challenge.”
As a doctor, it is increasingly clear to me that the health of our citizens, the health of our society and our planet, depends on disruptive innovations that decentralize and democratize food production and consumption, innovations that produce real food at scale, that restore the health of soils, water, air, and the biodiversity of our planet, and that reverse climate change. I cannot cure obesity and diabetes in my office. It is cured on the farm, in the grocery store, in the restaurant, in our kitchens, schools, workplaces, and faith-based communities.
All these things and more can provide the seeds for the type of transformation needed to solve one of the central problems of our time — the quality of what we put on our fork every day. We have to take back our health one kitchen, one home, one family, one community, one farm at a time! Changes to our own diet are necessary but not sufficient to truly create the shifts needed to create a healthy, sustainable, just world.
The policies and businesses that drive our current system must change to support a reimagined food system from field to fork and beyond. If we were to identify one big lever to pull to improve global health, create economic abundance, reduce social injustice and mental illness, restore environmental health, and reverse climate change, it would be transforming our entire food system. That is the most important work of our time — work that must begin now.
Reprinted with permission from "Food Fix" by Mark Hyman, copyright © 2020. Published by Little, Brown Spark, an imprint of Little, Brown Books. Click here to buy the book.