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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Food Think Tank Takes On Task of Fixing Global Food System

May 2, 2013 |

Nearly 1 billion people around the world are hungry. Another billion people are obese. At the same time, one third of the food produced for human consumption spoils or goes to waste. These problems have become pervasive throughout the globe. They affect industrialized and developing nations alike. Danielle Nierenberg and Ellen Gustafson of Chicago, Illinois saw these statistics from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization as symptoms of a failed global food system. In response, they launched Food Tank: The Food Think Tank as a platform for anyone with a stake in the global food system to contribute to a solution. According to the non-profit’s website, “Food Tank: The Food Think Tank is for the 7 billion people who have to eat every day.”

Nierenberg and Gustafson co-founded Food Tank in January of 2013 after spending nearly a decade working with environmental and humanitarian organizations. Gustafson is a sustainable food system activist and social entrepreneur. She is a former spokesperson for the UN World Food Program, investigative journalist for ABC News, and co-founder of the FEED Foundation, a world hunger organization that has provided a school meal program to 60 million kids around the world.

Danielle Nierenberg has 9 years of experience working with environmental organizations and writing about and researching agricultural issues. She served as the director of the Food and Agriculture program at The Worldwatch Institute where she launched the Nourishing the Planet initiative, a project assessing the state of global agriculture systems. She spent two years visiting rural farming communities in Asia and Africa, and talking with academics, researchers and journalists about how to strengthen the food system in a way that alleviates poverty and hunger while protecting the environment.

The two came to see the global food system as the hinge point for some of the world’s biggest problems including, hunger, obesity, poverty, and climate change. However, they were frustrated to find that existing NGOs and government programs looked at each of these in isolation, neglecting their interconnectedness. What’s more, they found that food programs focused almost exclusively measured success in terms of calorie content and yields, without any regard for environmental sustainability, soil enhancement, water quality protection, or nutrient densities. “A non-profit like the one we imagined in our heads didn’t exist so we started our own,” Nierenberg said.

Nierenberg and Gustafson see Food Tank as a vehicle to help change those metrics for measuring success. “We not only want to make agriculture something that people want to be involved in, but also create resilience to climate change and food shock. This is not just about nutrition, but about poverty alleviation,” said Nierenberg.

Their first major endeavor has been to compile a resource database of peer-reviewed research, NGO and government reports, infographics, and videos highlighting “agroecological solutions” for reducing hunger, obesity, poverty, and environmental degradation. So far, Food Tank has compiled over 1000 entries and Nierenberg hopes to expand to 10,000 by the end of the first year with the help of readers.

“Food Tank is not about us. It’s about all the good work that’s being done in this space,” Nierenberg said. There are local, regional, national, and global organizations already working on these problems. Food Tank aims to help connect the dots between all of those programs by serving as a platform for them to come together and share an audience. Nierenberg and Gustafson work closely with the UN’s World Food Program, a humanitarian agency that tackles hunger on the ground through direct meal programs and emergency preparedness, and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which brings researchers and experts together with policy makers from around the world. Nierenberg plans to run a weekly feature from Oxfam America, a global organization that works with local communities around the world to cope with war, poverty, disaster, and famine.

Although Food Tank is only a few months old, she says that she has already started to see some momentum develop. Already, Food Tank has 100,000 weekly newsletter subscribers, 26,000 Facebook likes, and 12,000 Twitter followers. The response from investors has been so positive, Nierenberg was hard pressed to describe any major challenges so far. A wide range of investors ranging from individual donors to the United Nations have helped to get Food Tank up and running.

In the coming years, Nierenberg hopes to continue to expand the resource database and build a way for readers to contribute their own successes and innovations from all over the world. “I think there is a real opportunity for Food Tank to facilitate South to North sharing. The Northern hemisphere can learn a lot from the South, especially when it comes to climate change,” she said.

Food Tank hopes to help build connections within all segments of the food system at both the global and local level. Over the course of this year, Nierenberg and Gustafson will be organizing a series of events bringing together members of various local food and agriculture communities. The first of such events brought 14 stakeholders, including farmers, USDA policy makers, managers of school gardens, chefs, and food service workers to Chicago to discuss kinks in the Illinois food system in front of a sold out crowd of 150 people.

“We need to highlight to the world the stories of success in agriculture. There is a tendency in agricultural investment to just look at the next great thing and to not invest in what is already working. We are seeing so many things working on the ground,” said Nierenberg adding that she hopes that Food Tank can open up the space to share these successes.

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