Guest Lecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

By Michele J. Aquino

In 2018, I was honored to be invited to contribute a chapter on food, agriculture, and nutrition to a new public health textbook, Foundations for Global Health Practice, edited by Professor Lori DiPrete Brown (Wiley, 2018) of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This textbook is unique in the global health literature for including such a broad set of chapter topics, including coverage of food systems, water systems, and the connection between climate and public health. In writing the chapter, I drew upon my experiences with smallholder agriculture in Central America as well as observations made while working on large agricultural commodity supply chains in the food manufacturing sector. I attempted to bring together a diverse mix of perspectives from food and agriculture experts when completing the background research for the project. The chapter includes foundational principles and vocabulary for understanding where our food comes from, and how it is connected to human health. It is my hope that I also provide students with a balanced perspective on food systems and some progressive, responsible principles for approaching work in the field of sustainable development.

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of speaking to one of the first classes to use the textbook, also at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My talk emphasized the importance of stakeholder engagement and respect for lifestyles and socioeconomic factors of the people we serve as sustainable development and global health practitioners. It is my belief that this must be acknowledged in order to design truly sustainable interventions and initiatives. One should not attempt to influence how people interact with food without first understanding the lifestyle factors that drive decision-making about where to get food and what to eat. At the same time, I explained some of the supply side complexities to consider when attempting to understand how and why food is produced in communities around the world (e.g. modern agricultural technologies, risk management for crops, and common points of food waste along the way from farm to fork). As a supplemental update to the textbook’s coverage of food systems, I spoke about the Lancet’s recent coverage of the “global syndemic” of nutrition and climate problems facing society today.

In January (2019), the Lancet released a Commission Report on this complex topic, drawing more attention to the nexus of climate change and public health factors related to human nutrition. I believe it is important for students to understand the interconnectedness of these fields of study. For example, our growing population (which also happens to enjoy eating plenty of meat) needs food, but the systems producing much of the food are heavily reliant on chemical inputs and farming practices that continue to contribute to a changing climate. As the climate changes, some agricultural communities find it more difficult to grow food the way they once could, thus contributing to food insecurity. This cycle presents major risks to the future of food security for many people around the globe. The point to the classroom: we must think about food through a systems framework to continuously improve how foods affect (and nourish) humans on a daily basis. We must pursue ways of growing food that disrupt the cycle described above, such as rotational grazing and regenerative agricultural management practices promoted by the Savory Institute.

In the end, I offered no groundbreaking insights for how to work in nutrition and agriculture to improve public health outcomes, but I drew upon the wisdom of others once again for a handful of simple recommendations:

  • First, remember Michael Pollan’s main food rule, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

  • Assess your food values and try to respect the food values of your clients and their communities.

  • Always consider trade-offs, and employ the precautionary principle.

  • Work on helping society waste less food (and, let’s waste less ourselves).

  • Encourage diversity in both crops and diets.

  • Keep soil covered.

  • Work on localized solutions. Progress is slow but still worth pursuing.