A foodie's take on feeding the world

This year as a culinary leader and educator, I have had the opportunity to hear from astronauts who, in space, saw the depleted water tables of California and listen to front-line workers from Save the Children tell of massive starvation around the world due to climate change, natural disaster and war. It shook me to the core of my casually held armchair opinions. The stories were riveting and makes feeding the populations that are food insecure so immediate and tangible. No longer can I just eat a meal; I am conscious of the moral obligations in what I eat and how we should cultivate that meal.

One cannot teach the next generation of chefs today without teaching food in its social context. Why? Because chefs are influencers. Society looks to their opinions on everything from which fish are endangered to whether GMOs are defensible.

International Culinary Center chief Dorothy Cann Hamilton.
Source: Dorothy Cann Hamilton
International Culinary Center chief Dorothy Cann Hamilton.

With the global population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, the culinary profession also is facing the challenge of feeding 2 billion additional people over the next 35 years. Let's understand how 9 billion people tip our scales. Today there are 7 billion people in the world. Add to that another whole population of India, the United States and Europe and we get to 9 billion. If we are having problems feeding today's population, what will we do in only 35 years to feed the rest?

Can we provide food security for all? Food security means food accessibility, affordability and adequate nutrition. To solve these issues we must start with understanding the problem and chefs can serve as the front line of education to the public.

Here are four issues that we can focus on to begin to find solutions:

1) Waste: What we consume is as vital as what we waste. If the population will grow by nearly 30 percent in 2050, it mirrors the calculated food waste we have in the world today, which is 30 percent (closer to 40 percent in the U.S.). If we marry that gap we might solve the 2050 shortfall. Education is key and an essential cornerstone in how we teach the next generation of chefs. At ICC we have started new curriculums inspired by Chef Dan Barber's WASTed dinners, which are gourmet meals created entirely from food scraps that most kitchens would consider trash. Our students learn to look at waste and use it in a new context. But this problem can't be solved by chefs and restaurants alone. We must also look at how much a farm, a distributor, a factory or a family throws away. Food has value down to its peels, bones and husks. People can adapt to realizing their value very quickly. Food shortage makes an overnight teacher. Periods of hunger caused by economics, climate change or war whiplashes people back to respecting and cherishing every morsel of food they eat.

2) Water: Since the recent droughts throughout the west, southwest and even New England, people are concerned about our water resources. Is this the responsibility of good government, science or we as individuals? I think the shift has to move to the consumer. We pretty much know the calories of what we eat but do we know the water profile? A single tomato can drink up to 19 gallons of water. Knowing this, it poses an individual challenge. On my next trip to California should I eat a local tomato? Even more troubling, should a west coast company grow tomatoes and ship them to New York or China?

3) GMOs: It is proven that GMO seeds can produce foods in greater volume, with more nutrients, and using less pesticides. They can respond to climate change and grow in inhospitable places. If, after decades of research, these seeds show no harmful effects for the environment or humans, is it immoral to protest against them at the expense of the world's hungry? Seed hybridization that has been accepted for hundreds of years is nothing less than early unsophisticated genetic modification. At the very least, if we are transferring genes within a same species — which would allow for much more productive food — why wouldn't we do it? We did this in the 19th century with hybridization on a macro level. Today we can control the process on a much more sophisticated micro level. If rice can grow under water in Indonesia, why would we not share that gene with the rice strains that grow in frequently flooded areas of India?

4) Labor: Can you grow foods in economically endowed areas with a benevolent climate if it can only be harvested by waves of illegal immigrants? When does factoring the social cost of human beings that migrate from their homes, live in questionable conditions and get minimum pay become an acceptable process of agricultural production? Why not move the production to where the labor is, if all other factors are the same?

Female farmers carrying a cauliflower basket to sell at the local market early in the morning in Allahabad, India.
Ravi Prakash | LightRocket | Getty Images
Female farmers carrying a cauliflower basket to sell at the local market early in the morning in Allahabad, India.

These questions must enter into a food professional's decision on what to put on a menu. They must factor into a family's mealtime decisions too. It is not a trend. It is a social responsibility ... and now a new part of the education of a chef.

Food security is more than a burning issue, it is a moral responsibility and it must be front and center in the 21st century. It is the new civil rights movement. We cannot just enjoy a meal or eat a fruit without thinking about our actions. We now need to eat responsibly not just for ourselves but for a sustainable and better world.

Commentary by Dorothy Cann Hamilton, founder and CEO of the International Culinary Center. She is also president of the USA Pavilion at the 2015 World Expo in Milan. Follow ICC on Twitter @ICCedu.