While food is the life force that sustains and connects us, there is no singular way to obtain and harness the vital nutrients within it.
We live in an era of many choices when it comes to food and nutrients: starting with the origins of seeds, progressing to the way the plants are grown, and moving up the chain to how food is delivered to our plates. It doesnt stop there. Moving back down the chain, we make choices about how we deal with food waste, and how it gets recycled back into the food system.
These choices have become ever more complex since the days of modern agriculture, 10,000 years ago. Our seemingly individualistic choices have profound effects on our planet and our heath.
It all begins with scale.
If youre not buying from a local farmer (and there are varying definitions of local), chances are that the meal youre eating has travelled more than 1,500 food miles to get to your plate. This system not only consumes transportation resources, but allows for the large-scale loss of nutrients: by the time produce and ingredients reach you, they may no longer be nutrient-rich.
Then there is the question organic.
Did your food come from asmall producer or a bigger agribusiness? Which dietary food options are best for you to adopt? Michael Pollans book The Omnivores Dilemma is a good starting point for thinking through some of these everyday consumer food choices and dilemmas.
Finally, there is the broader issue of food waste and eco-sanitation. Questions abound about the sustainability of our food system: as we approach peak oil, can we afford to continue to power tractors, water pumping systems, and transport food across vast distances? Can our food production afford to rely on chemical fertilizers and pesticides with the same intensity?
To tackle these questions, dilemmas, and choices, we need to understand the nutrient cycle and how to create more ecological balance so that we are not only improving the health and vitality of individuals, but also of our local regions and planet as a whole.
We need to embrace local stores of knowledge. Because weve been interacting with our planet for thousands of years, there are many different ways to manage nutrients. For one, we need to find systems that support farmers as integral actors in the nutrient cycle, because local innovations will be the driving force of change.
What kind of local solutions have we seen?
The Amazon provides a notable example of local ingenuity: residents there have been able to bio-organically inoculate and transform the chemistry of soil from being barren and nutrient poor to something called terra preta, or black eartha type of soil that now covers up to 10 percent of the Amazons land surface. Scientists are still trying to figure out just how this is done without modern-day technologies and chemicals.
We also find this rise of local innovation in the dry Sahel of Africa, where local farmers have developed and improved an agricultural technique called za. Through this technique, plants are grown in raised pits or little mounds, which have been boosted with organic nutrients. Za improves water retention, protects the seeds and organic matter, and allows for the surrounding soil to recover. According to the World Bank, the application of za can increase yields by 500%.
Moving from the rainforest and Sahel to urban landscapes, there is a growing movement to cultivate community gardens in abandoned spaces. Urban agriculture has the potential to transform the city of Detroit, which is struggling economically, into a network of thriving communities where food security and food justice are real possibilities.
Local innovation takes many shapes and forms, including futuristic-looking warehouses, skyscrapers, and even boats that house growing and floating plants. For example, as Columbia Professor Despommier Dickson highlights, vertical farms have the potential to transform the local food-shed with impressive yields, despites the high input costs that still create a major barrier.
You can even find innovation in the science and chemistry of pairing our foodtraditional food rules and combinations can create groundbreaking benefits. Studies have shown that there is a reason why we eat certain foods together, aside from the fact that they taste good.
The combination of lemon, ginger, and honey is a time-tested remedy for a cold. Wasabi may help digest the raw fish in sushi with its anti-microbial properties.
The answer is clear: focusing on local matters.
This is why Ashoka, the worlds largest organization of social entrepreneurs, is building a movement around Nutrients for All. We are creating a discussion to support local innovations in the nutrient cycleone that flows from soils to food to people, and back to soils. As we appreciate the ingenuity of the past and the rich knowledge in local systems, we are embracing innovations that can help ensure there are nutrients for allfor the worlds population and the natural world.
By ThienVinh Nguyen, Ashoka Changemakers