“When we think about threats to the environment, we tend to picture cars and smokestacks, not dinner. But the truth is, our need for food poses one of the biggest dangers to the planet.”
So begins the story that kicked off National Geographic’s five-year series on the subject of food. Our journey takes readers around the globe—from cattle feedlots in Texas to GMO rice laboratories in the Philippines—to investigate whether it’s possible to feed nine billion people by 2050 without overwhelming the planet. The series uses innovative multimedia storytelling to tackle key public policy questions: Why does the richest country on Earth have a hunger problem? What’s the truth about GMOs? What is a healthy diet?
With a deeply reported and richly photographed feature called The New Face of Hunger (August 2014), we take on the topic of malnutrition in America, endeavoring to parse the dynamics behind such an improbable situation. One in six Americans runs out of food at least once a year. Paradoxically, many of the “food insecure,” as they are called, are overweight, limited by income to eating processed foods with little nutritional value and by geography to “food deserts,” areas lacking accessible grocery stores.
Our digital presentation of the story brought readers into close contact with the daily reality of food insecure Americans, with photo essays by world-class photographers depicting hungry subjects in Osage, Iowa (Hunger in the Heartland); Houston, Texas (Hunger in the Land of Cars); and the Bronx, New York (Hunger in the City of Plenty).
Video producer Shannon Sanders, meanwhile, focused on two distinct demographic tales, including Feeding the Elderly in Rural Arkansas, a video about her native Arkansas, which has one of the highest concentrations of food-insecure elderly in the United States. “The story was about living paycheck to paycheck your entire life, and where does that leave you when you retire?” she asked. She also profiled a working-class family of five struggling in Iowa in A Family Faces Food Insecurity in America’s Heartland: “They dispelled the myth of ‘you’re not working, so that’s why you’re on food stamps.’ ”
Readers responded to such sobering stories with 1,400 Facebook shares, 62,000 Facebook likes, and nearly 4,000 tweets. So we enlisted respected food journalist Tracie McMillan to continue covering the issue of food security for National Geographic’s digital platforms.
Tapping into this year’s buzz about the so-called paleo diet, National Geographic traced the Evolution of Diet around the globe and asked the question Could eating like our ancestors make us healthier? in September 2014. Digital readers are introduced to the story with a stage-setting grid of 18 plates of food, ranging from Afghanistan’s naan in salty yak-milk tea to Crete’s fried geranium leaves. Photographer Matthieu Paley had been taking pictures of meals for a decade, and for this story, he documented seven remote, self-sufficient communities—the true locavores—from the Inuits to the Bajau, the Hadza to the Yakut.
Video producer Shannon Sanders considered how best to show their eating habits and practices. She opted for sights and sounds to immerse readers in the place. “We didn’t need words to share it,” she says. Seen in five videos, Paley’s footage—which focused on the search for food and on hunting, gathering, and community—runs without narration or interviews.
Graphics editors Jason Treat and Anna Scalamogna created We’ll Have What They’re Having, a temporal animation that allows readers to see how a country’s diet has developed through time. The chart, static on the printed page, grows richer in interactive form. As the page is launched, the reader watches an auto-play demonstrating how diets around the world have evolved to become more similar. A reader can hover over a country for an expandable chart. “It’s a reflection of globalization,” notes Jason Treat. “People are exposed to different foods and cultures and adopt those.” The package garnered 44,000 Facebook likes and nearly 1,600 tweets.
Expanding our coverage of how the world’s diet evolved, we created What the World Eats, an ambitious visualization drawing on 50 years of FAO data to let readers explore our collective global diet (including a special breakout of meat consumption) and delve into the particular dietary habits of 22 nations. Readers can see history through the numbers by looking at consumption over time by country. With modernization and affluence, for example, Korea and China made dramatic changes in diet. Periods of famine and war are evident in the charts for Ethiopia and Kuwait. Saudi Arabia’s appetite for meat grew 16-fold since gaining geopolitical advantages from its flourishing oil industry.
We also tackled the increasingly thorny issue of GMOs, traveling the globe to see how biotechnology is changing the food equation in an October package called Green Revolution. Editor Jason Treat grappled with how to make the very technical process of genetic modification accessible to readers, creating an interactive graphic that breaks down the incredibly complex process of engineering flood-resistant rice into a very digestible—and visual—series of steps.
Across digital platforms, we’ve introduced daily food coverage—emphasizing National Geographic angles like the science and culture of food—that goes beyond National Geographic magazine’s print and digital food coverage. For instance, we launched a food blog called The Plate, with a diverse roster of contributors that includes chef José Andrés. Recent topics include military meals around the world, gardening in space, and where to find the most authentic Filipino food. Our digital photo community, called YourShot, has made food-centric assignments that have given rise to photo galleries showing how regular people eat around the world. And we’ve published dozens of daily and enterprise stories on the beat, covering everything from the aging population of America’s farmers to the science behind trendy new superfoods. It’s all collected on our food hub, The Future of Food, as an ongoing reminder that what we eat and how we eat has a lasting impact on the planet.