Stories / Impact

Feeding the Planet in the Age of Climate Change

Food system thought leaders meet to talk hunger, health, and the future

Mitchell Davis

February 26, 2019


Sunnylands Group
Photo: the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands (caption below)

The James Beard Foundation is guided by our mantra of “good food for goodTM.” For chief strategy officer Mitchell Davis, that means digging into the complex relationships of our current food system through global conversation, finding ways for the Beard Foundation to collaborate with others in envisioning the future, and making sure that chefs have a place at the table when we talk about feeding our planet both sustainably and deliciously. Below, Davis shares findings and insights from the second-annual Sunnylands retreat, where representatives from across the food system met to discuss strategies for creating change on both the consumer and producer levels.


The paradox of increasing global hunger and rising rates of obesity. The challenge of climate change and the role food production and waste play. The increased interest in and enthusiasm for chefs and food culture. These issues provided the backdrop for our second annual Sunnylands retreat, which was co-hosted by Annenberg Foundation Trust and the James Beard Foundation and took place over President’s Day weekend.

Setting out with no less an ambitious objective as “a wholesale re-envisioning of how we grow, share, and consume our food—transformational change to our current and future food systems on the consumer and producer sides, on a global scale,” the retreat brought an intimate, diverse group of experts and activists together at the magnificent Sunnylands desert estate in Rancho Mirage, California.

Among the organizations gathered to debate the best way forward for the food system were the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, World Food Programme, International Food Policy Research Institute, Union of Concerned Scientists, Harvard Medical School, New York University, and Stanford University. Voices of the culinary community were represented by JBF Chefs Boot Camp alum Tanya Holland and JBF Award–winning journalist Mark Bittman. Needless to say, there were differing opinions around the table.

In 2015, the 193 member countries of the United Nations adopted the 2030 Development Agenda, committing to the achievement of 17 complex Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs) within 15 years. Among the goals, the second (SDG2)—to end hunger, achieve food security and nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture—provides a global context and framework for much of the impact work the James Beard Foundation has undertaken with the help of our advocate chefs. It also provided the context for this retreat.

But so far things aren’t going great for SDG2. Global hunger has increased for three years in a row. Obesity rates in developing countries are rising even faster. Two new Lancet Commission reports underscore the need to act urgently. Both make sweeping recommendations for global food system realignment to improve the health of populations and the health of the planet.

The EAT-Lancet Joint Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems has proposed dietary targets that maximize health and minimize the environmental impact of food production. In short, the recommendations call for decreased meat consumption in developed countries, increased meat consumption in developing countries, and in both, a preponderance of calories coming from minimally processed whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, and nuts.

Less publicized, but perhaps even more significant from a policy point of view—at least according to JBF Award–winning nutritionist/advocate Marion Nestle, a Sunnylands participant—is the Lancet Commission report on the global syndemic of obesity, undernutrition, and climate change. (The commission defines syndemic as “a synergy of epidemics.”)

Some of the report’s recommendations include thinking in global terms, removing the siloes that keep expertise and policies separate, strengthening governmental levers at the municipal and federal levels, engaging civil society, and “reduc[ing] the influence of large commercial interest on public policy development.” Nestle believes this last point represents a watershed moment—it’s the first time she has ever seen an acknowledgment of, let alone a recommendation to remove, the food industry’s sway on public food policy.

At the conclusion of the Sunnylands retreat, a few possible disruptions and next steps were put on the table:

  • A review of what actions at the national and subnational level would help align production and consumption patterns with the global targets.
  • Making it a requirement that everyone to use the existing SDG framework for all sustainability and public health work, so that outcomes ladder up and contribute to the global effort.
  • An examination of the role that trade regulation (especially the WTO) and the international flow of produce plays in overall public health and environment outcomes.
  • The establishment of national food agencies to break down the bureaucratic and legislative siloes that keep health, environment, agriculture, food, hygiene, trade, and other related sectors separate and ineffective.
  • Rallying Hollywood to portray more positive images of food in movies and television to change food culture and individual behavior, similar to how the entertainment industry helped shift perceptions of smoking.

And, of course, the Beard Foundation offered up chefs and the culinary community as key players in the work of finding new food solutions, helping to shift tastes, and engaging the general public in these important issues through taste and the pleasure of eating.


Photo Top Row: Albert-László Barabási, Professor of Network Science, Northeastern University, and Harvard Medical School; Ammad Bahalim, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Nick Austin, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; David Lobell, Agricultural Ecologist and Assistant Professor, Stanford University; Marco Gualtieri, Founder and Chairman, Seeds & Chips; Roy Steiner, Managing Director, Food Initiative, Rockefeller Foundation; JBF Leadership Award winner Ricardo J. Salvador, Director and Senior Scientist, Food & Environment Program, Union of Concerned Scientists; Michiel Bakker, Google Food; Maja Hoffman, Philanthropist and Entrepreneur; JBF Leadership Award winner Mark Bittman, Journalist and Author; JBF Boot Camp and WEL Alum Tanya Holland, Brown Sugar Kitchen, Oakland, CA; Paul Newnham, Director, SDG2 Advocacy Hub and Chefs Manifesto; Katherine Miller, VP Impact Programs, James Beard Foundation; Nick Austin, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; David Austin, Director of Strategic Partnerships, World Food Program

Photo Bottom Row: Ertharin Cousin, Distinguished Lecturer, Stanford University, former WFP Exectuive Director; Ambassador David Lane, President, Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands; JBF Leadership Award winner Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, New York University; Jose Graziano da Silva, Director-General, U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization; Mitchell Davis, Chief Strategy Officer, James Beard Foundation; Shenggen Fan, Director-General, International Food Policy Reserach Institute

Mitchell Davis is chief strategy officer at the James Beard Foundation. Find him on Twitter and Instagram.