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Dear EarthTalk: I understand a recent government report concluded that our global food system is in deep trouble, that roughly two billion people are hungry or undernourished while another billion are over consuming to the point of obesity. What’s going on? -- Ellie Francoeur, Baton Rouge, LA
The report in question, the Global Farming & Futures Report, synthesized findings collected from more than 400 scientists spanning 34 countries, and was published in January 2011 by the British government’s Department for Business Innovation & Skills. Its troubling bottom line conclusion is that the world’s existing food system is failing half of the people on the planet.
Economic inequality among nations and other factors have contributed to a global food system whereby a billion people are hungry (lacking access to sufficient amounts of macronutrients, e.g. carbohydrates, fats and proteins), another billion suffer from “hidden hunger” (lacking crucial vitamins and minerals from their diet), while yet another billion are “substantially over-consuming” (spawning a new public health epidemic involving chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes and widespread cardiovascular disease).
The report, which was prepared by the research firm Foresight on behalf of the British government, also predicts that the cost of food worldwide will rise sharply in coming decades, increasing the likelihood of food-based conflicts and migration, and that people won’t be able to feed themselves without destroying the planet—unless we can transform the global food system on the scale of the industrial revolution.
“The global food system is spectacularly bad at tackling hunger or at holding itself to account,” Lawrence Haddad, director of the Institute of Development Studies and an author of the report, told the UK’s Guardian. The report warns that an expanding world population that is already overexploiting its natural resources is a recipe for disaster, especially given the onset of climate change.
“Farmers have to grow more food at less cost to the environment,” said Caroline Spelman of the UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), which commissioned the report. That may sound simple, but many factors determine if production of a given food is economically viable.
Fixing the global food system will be no small task. Fundamental will be the spreading of existing knowledge and technology to the developing world to boost yields. Other keys to such an endeavor include dramatically reducing food waste—Americans toss as much as 40 percent of their food—especially since food production and distribution accounts for as much as a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Also, researchers suggest that investing in genetically modified crops and cloned livestock, despite the potential risks, may be “essential in light of the magnitude of the challenges.”
What can those of us in developed nations do? Staying active and eating right is the best way to prevent obesity and ensuing health problems. And choosing locally produced food over that which is shipped in from far away will help reduce our food’s carbon footprint. Also, support the efforts of groups working to end hunger and malnutrition in poor countries. If nothing else, those who wish to help feed the hungry can set their web browsers’ home page to The Hunger Site and click on a button there once a day which triggers a donation of food from one of a number of sponsors to needy people in developing countries.
The debate over whether we should add fluoride to public drinking water has raged since the 1940s when American cities first initiated the practice as a way to fight the scourge of tooth decay. The benefits of more research and hindsight in recent years have led many policymakers to reconsider the merits of so-called artificial fluoridation. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that today over 60 percent of Americans get fluoridated
drinking water from their taps whether they want it or not.
Critics of the practice worry that we are exposing ourselves to much more fluoride—which can be problematic in the extreme—than is necessary to fight tooth decay. After all, some fluoride, which is a naturally occurring mineral, finds its way into food and drinking water, typically in low concentrations, without human intervention. And most of us, kids included, use fluoride toothpaste twice a day.
So what’s the risk, anyway? According to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG), over-exposure to fluoride can be toxic, causing dental fluorosis (mottling and loss of tooth enamel) and skeletal fluorosis (joint pain, stiffness and bone fractures). “Some studies point to a possible link between fluoride exposure and osteosarcoma (bone cancer), neurotoxicity and disruption of thyroid function,” says EWG.
Proponents of fluoridation argue that the benefits of adding it to drinking water far outweigh any potential risks. Various studies have shown that fluoridating drinking water can indeed lead to as much as a 40 percent reduction in cavities in populations of both kids and adults. But studies in other areas that do not artificially fluoridate—such as throughout most of Europe—have shown similar improvements in recent decades, perhaps thanks to increased attention to teeth by family and school health care practitioners.
Regardless, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently announced a lowering of the maximum recommended fluoride level for municipal water from 1.2 milligrams per liter to 0.7.
“We’ve had to wait too long, but the government’s announcement marks a belated recognition that many American children are at risk from excess fluoride in drinking water and other sources,” says EWG’s Jane Houlihan. “HHS has taken an important first step. Now it’s up to water utilities to respond and for the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] to lower its too-high legal limit on fluoride in drinking water, which is more than five times the new maximum being recommended by the [HHS].”
You can check if your water is fluoridated, and if so, how much, via the CDC’s My Water’s Fluoride website. If it is, you can also invest in a filter that removes it. However, they are not cheap: Countertop water distillers go for $200 and up, and an activated alumina defluoridation filter—most come in cartridge form and can be placed in-line under counters—are costly, too, and need to be changed out frequently. FilterWater.com, among other sources, has a wide range of choices available for sale. Unfortunately, the most popular and less expensive home water filters, like those from Pur and Brita, do not remove fluoride.