That was the topic of last week's Frontiers in the Environment lecture presented by Chris Lambe, director of social responsibility for The Mosaic Company - a crop nutrient production company based in Plymouth, Minn.
"What I mean by food literacy is the ability to actually be able to discuss food in a rational way, to know most of the basic facts about our food system, and to understand the challenges and the paradigms we face in trying to feed a hungry planet," Lambe said. "It's a pretty simple concept, but I think what you will find as we go through this is that food literacy itself is actually very, very rare in our society."
Part of what makes food literacy so difficult is the sheer complexity of the food and agricultural system, according to Lambe. Combine this with the fact that just 2 percent of Americans work on the land in agricultural jobs, and it's easy to see why the everyday consumer struggles to become food literate.
"Most of us, when we're expounding our opinions on food, we don't have any practical personal experience," he said. "We're really spouting off other people's opinions and how we've internalized them. That makes us food illiterate."
Population growth is putting immense pressure on the food system, but other factors come into play as well. Worldwide, the middle class is growing and consuming more meat, which is simply less efficient than grain production. And efficiency is crucial when urban development is taking a bite out of the four percent of the planet's area suitable for growing food.
"We also have global social issues because when you talk about food and feeding people, it's not an issue that occurs on its own," Lambe said. "You're touching on poverty, you're touching access to capital, human rights, women's and children's rights, land rights. These all complicate potential solutions."
Even some of the most sustainable solutions aren't so cut-and-dried. For example, trying to produce all food locally would require more resources and inputs than simply growing food where it grows best and transporting it efficiently, according to Lambe. On the ongoing organic-versus-mineral fertilizer debate, he advocates for a mixture of the best practices from both for the most ecologically sound solution.
But while the answers are complicated and often unclear, Lambe is confident that educating consumers and decision-makers is the first step in the right direction.
"What I'm hoping we will do is if we achieve food literacy and begin to understand all these paradigms and how all these things connect together, we'll get away from these big organic and conventional debates," Lambe said. "We'll begin to form our new sustainable ways, new forms of eco-agriculture, and probably many, many different streams that will occur in this part of the world or that part of the world depending on climatic conditions, farmer abilities, soils, etc."
Watch Lambe's full presentation online.
John Sisser is a communications assistant with the Institute on the Environment.