Many would agree that a sustainable and robust food supply is important. But recent research from the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition shows just how vital it is.
"It's a geopolitical analysis of the relation between sustainable food systems and migration," Valentina Gasbarri, communication and external relations manager for the Italy-based foundation, told Food Dive during a recent trip to the United States. "What we found out was that the root causes for migration, particularly in the Mediterranean region, was more due to food scarcity and food insecurity than causes related to conflict and political instability."
The report came out in December as a joint venture between the foundation, which studies the relationship between food, nutrition and sustainability and makes policy recommendations, and geopolitical research firm MacroGeo. It concentrates on the Mediterranean area, which includes the foundation's home country of Italy, and has lately been at the center of the European immigration debate. But its implications are much wider throughout the world, showing how forces like climate change, societal shifts and immigration policies impact the global food market.
This kind of food policy idea is at the heart of what the Barilla Center is trying to identify and share. The organization was started in 2009 by the family behind the pasta mega-brand, which is the market leader in Italy. Luca Di Leo, head of media relations for the Barilla Center, said the Barillas wanted to establish a research center to "look at the very important food sustainability issues of our time."
"The root causes for migration, particularly in the Mediterranean region, was more due to food scarcity and food insecurity than causes related to conflict and political instability."
Communication and external relations manager, Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition
At the start, the center looked at the price of durum wheat — a major component of dried Barilla noodles — but also energy use. Today, its research looks more at the broad view of global sustainability and the food industry.
The foundation, which partners with well-known research firms, holds an annual forum to discuss some of the major sustainability issues. For the first time this year, the forum is being held outside Italy, with a session recently held in Brussels, and one planned for Sept. 28 in New York City, coinciding with the UN General Assembly session and co-organized by the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
Gasbarri said the intent of the forum is to gather several of the world's leaders on sustainable development and food policy and high-level discussions on three macro-themes: the global nutritional crisis, best practices for development in areas that see large levels of migrants coming and going, and how food relates to the U.N.'s sustainable development goals.
"It's something that is underestimated in the current research, even at the policy level," Gasbarri said. "We're trying to see what kind of best practices, experience from the field and concrete limitations to the achievement of the [sustainable development goals] that countries are doing."
Raising awareness of food sustainability
One of the symbols commonly associated with the Barilla Center looks like a set of two triangles facing different directions. One of them is the well known "food pyramid," showing how many servings of different types of food are healthy and make up a balanced diet. The one next to it is upside down.
"Basically, the breakthrough that the Barilla Foundation did was gather all of the scientific data and evidence and show that what is good for people — fruits and vegetables, at the bottom of the pyramid — is also good for the planet — meaning that to make fruits and vegetables, you use less water that the food products that are on the top," Di Leo said. "You use less land, and there are fewer CO2 emissions."
"...Depending on what you believe in — in Mother Nature or God — things were done properly, because by eating all of this, you do something that is good for your own health and good for the planet," he said.
And looking at how closely different nations follow the second pyramid is a big part of what is becoming an annual study from the Barilla Center: The Food Sustainability Index. Done jointly by the Barilla Center and The Economist Intelligence Unit, the index looked at 34 countries that make up 85% of the world's GDP. Researchers looked at demographic and economic factors — including population, income levels and urbanization — food loss and waste, sustainable agriculture, nutritional challenges — including vitamin deficiencies, access to improved water sources and dietary patterns, and physical activity.
"Depending on what you believe in — in Mother Nature or God — things were done properly, because by eating all of this, you do something that is good for your own health and good for the planet."
Luca Di Leo
Head of media relations, Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition
Under this index, France is the most sustainable country. The United States, on the other hand, ranks 21st. Di Leo and Gasbarri said this is due to many Americans' dietary choices, including the nation's love of beef and sugary items. According to specific statistics about the nation's performance in the index, the U.S. has the highest prevalence of overweight children (42%), and 71% of adults can be considered overweight or obese. The United States also is one of the worst countries when it comes to sustainable agriculture, ranking 31st.
But the report isn't intended to shame countries, Gasbarri said.
"[We're] trying to back up something that is very difficult to highlight to the Nebraska housewife ... those very hard topics and theoretical themes to the level of understanding," she said. "We're trying to raise awareness, and even to make people cautious and conscious of the ... daily food choices."
Inspiring global change
The organization and its studies have yet to make a significant impact — although its home country of Italy did pass some legislation dealing with food waste following publication of the sustainability report. This is part of the reason the foundation is spreading its wings and hosting summits worldwide.
"The end goal is to get policymakers and civil society in general ... to basically make food more sustainable," Di Leo said. "The index is what we see as a possible guiding light for policymakers to follow."
"The end goal is to get policymakers and civil society in general ... to basically make food more sustainable. The index is what we see as a possible guiding light for policymakers to follow."
Luca Di Leo
Head of media relations, Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition
The forum in New York is planned for stakeholders ranging from governments to industry to consumer groups to researchers to consumers. Topics that will be discussed include addressing the nutrition crisis and food paradoxes — focusing on why many people in the world are starving and many others are obese — the role agriculture and food play in migration, and finding actionable ways to make food more sustainable. According to a draft of the agenda, speakers will include UN staff, academics and researchers.
"The general message that we want to say is to highlight the link that each single [UN sustainable development goal] has with food," Gasbarri said. "It tends to be underestimated in the current research and even at the policy level."
And while this forum is not expected to immediately impact domestic and international policy, it's a start to the conversations and examinations that need to take place. Gasbarri said that food is both a part of the world's problems and solution, and the forum will start many parties on the positive path of making a difference.
Di Leo agreed that the forum is a step in the right direction.
"By making the right choices, we can change the world," Di Leo said.