Ellen Gustafson: Connecting the Dots Between Obesity, Hunger, and Agriculture

By Nancy Smorch

While doing research today, I came across a TED Talk by Ellen Gustafson that was really quite interesting.  I ended up going to her Ellen's website and found the above video.  I absolutely loved how she puts the pieces of the world hunger, obesity, and the agricultural crises together.  She’s basically saying that hunger and obesity are caused by the same problem: lack of access to nutritional foods.

Today we have just under 1 billion hungry people in the world.  And we have over 1 billion overweight people in the world.  This is a huge percentage of the global population.

Currently, it’s suggested by the U.S. Government that half of our plate consist of fruits and vegetables.  Ellen is suggesting that we don’t grow enough fruits and vegetables to fill half of our plates in this way - not because we can’t grow these foods, but because that’s not the system we’ve been promoting.


The food production system that we have (heavily subsidized corn, wheat, and soy crops) isn’t helping us to have a healthier society.  It’s made us completely disconnect agriculture and health.  She says that - in the same way that food and eating is an agricultural act - agriculture is a health act.

Her argument is this: if we address agriculture in terms of health issues, we may be able to address both hunger and obesity in very similar ways.

We’ve been trying to address hunger by getting people more calories and we’ve been trying to address obesity in a different way - by telling people to eat less or to eat different food.

The reality is that it’s the system that we’ve built that fundamentally needs to change.  We really don’t have a “free market” when it comes to food.  A farmer's market is a free market - there’s transparency, farmers grow what the consumers want, there’s choices for the consumer.  But our current agricultural system isn’t set up fairly... especially when subsidies are involved.

It seems that growing food has become the ultimate goal, rather than growing food high in nutritional yield.  Should we really be thinking about how we can grow a ton of baby carrots on a massive scale, or should we be thinking about how we need to grow an appropriate amount of carrots closer to those who need to be eating carrots, all around the world?

She, much like me, says we need to take our power back as eaters, and she’s suggesting we start by changing our dinners.  Cooking healthy meals together in the home with family and friends will encourage a healthy family and a healthy community.  By demanding healthy foods at your local stores, the stores will then demand those foods from the farmers - and this is the way to help change the agricultural system and thus the food system.

Awesome work Ellen!