Hard Talk Omnibus, 11.5.2022
After more than 45 years in the food industry, I found it necessary to write the book, There Is Enough, published by Aalborg University Press in 2020 and since translated into Danish (There is enough). The book is aimed at anyone who is interested in food – and food production.
In my studies for the book, I made the frightening discovery that four billion people, in increasing numbers, on the planet eat far too much wrong food, and the book is my small contribution to correcting that imbalance.
The book in brief:
As urbanization and our modern lifestyles remove us from fields and animals, it also weakens our understanding of the connection between the food we eat and our health. In our busy lives, we replace cooking with “the easy solutions,” and a host of lifestyle diseases point to the risks of these choices and abandonment of fresh foods: Excessive consumption of processed food can contribute to poor health, which is treated with increasing consumption of medications. For some, the combination of everyday food and medicine has become normal.
Our food, beginning six million years ago and from there four million years on, has evolved us from being apes to early hominids. The following 1.7 million years led to us becoming Homo Sapiens with language about 100,000 years ago. Throughout those 1.7 million years, our body had gotten used to a certain diet. With the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago, food changed again, and 300 years ago, in principle, we got rid of having to suffer from hunger. In the last 60 years, however, food has changed so radically and rapidly that the processing that is now taking place in the food industry, which is often a good thing for us, is also in some cases a threat we have to deal with.
Before having access to ready meals and industrial processed food, there were close family members who prepared meals from fresh foods when available and who cared about our physical well-being. The drastic changes that have occurred over the past half-century have had major consequences for society in general, burdening the welfare system with the treatment of diseases related to food and nutrition. But what dynamics are behind this ?
The food industry “reads” our choice of items in the shopping cart and then makes more of both the bad and good food. In addition to good food ensuring health, adequate food also ensures, to some extent, that there is no war, and food has also been shown to be the backdrop for the prelude to violent revolutions. We must therefore engage with the subject and become active consumers who not only satisfy ourselves with quantity but also quality when shopping in supermarkets.
But why do we instead go “crazy” in supermarkets and buy food that over time makes us sick ? Although the food industry provides what we want, we poorly understand what nutrition our body needs. Once upon a time, this was “silent knowledge” in local cultures and expressed in what and how we ate. Now, for some people, bad food is partly self-imposed because of our enjoyment of global brands and our desire for highly processed food and alienation from the origin of food. Even worse: As Homo Sapiens, or ‘Homo Consumens’, we waste 30-50 percent of the food, suffer from lifestyle diseases, welfare malnutrition and allergies. Can we fix this ? The answer is: Yes.
Our consumption has 10,000-year-old rapidly growing roots in the agricultural community. Completely new family systems emerged and grew with the agricultural revolution and cities emerged from this dynamic. Cities make us survive as a species, as we benefit from the dynamism they can accommodate. To defend cities, armies emerged and the military has over time had a decisive influence on our food traditions, among other things because durability of food in the field is important for soldiers, and food shelf life is also important for a supermarket. Otherwise, too much has to be thrown away in the current industrialized self-service concepts, where especially branded products are important. But why are they important ?
Branded products promise consistent quality over time. Precisely because we value consistency, food manufacturers and marketers are able to capture our loyalty as consumers by guaranteeing for a select audience’ consistent experience in every purchase of a particular brand. In fact, on that basis, industry and shops take the decision away from us and make us a little passive, even if it is unhealthy food that we signal desire.
It is a fact that cell formation in our body, among other things, constantly requires nutrient-dense proteins from our food, which turn into amino acids, building blocks that function in different ways in our cells. And our bodies are constantly renewing. We get a new body every seven years, so to speak, with DNA as the guide for this eternal building project we pass on to our offspring, who pre-programmed become more or less healthy from what we eat.
Healthy food makes us eat less, stay healthy, slim and avoid medications and the effects are studied in what’s called Epigenetics. These studies help us understand how external influences affect us genetically and psychologically from generation to generation. It should be basic knowledge, for everyone who deals with food, because food affects us in everyday life in exactly the same way as the danger of driving a car with or without a seat belt both now and in the future, where we have challenges and opportunities in our food: The next ten years there will be a generational change in agriculture and banks and capital will take over large parts of the food system in a kind of food revolution. The pride and closeness in family farming we entrusted with the growing of our food can disappear rapidly.
While I believe consumers should take greater responsibility and send signals through their purchases, unfortunately, as it is now, in many companies, the signals meet a wall of food ignorance.
Food illiteracy among the employees of the industry’s commercial departments, who are in contact with consumers, means that the buyers in the supermarkets also know nothing about food. For them, only the price counts. Not the nutritional content of a cucumber, which is important for the stomach and brain.
How can we regain greater measure of control over choosing nutritious food daily in the face of the overwhelming power of marketing, industry, supermarkets, and our own body and brain chemistry?
Our best defense, or attack if you will, is to switch from being passive to active consumers, and control what we can when choosing branded products. Understanding modern marketing, where the consumer is the main actor, is key for us as consumers to get out of the squeeze we are in, where in a way latent we feel we have lost responsibility for the food: “Give the consumer what he, she (it) wants“, sums up the raison d’etre in sales and marketing psychology: Everything is 100 percent consumer-driven, and as it is now, consumers are motivated primarily at the lowest level of food needs, i.e. at low price, because there are the most consumers and the number is constantly increasing. It provides increasing volume, which gives…. lower prices,… as… is demanded by consumers. A vicious circle where no one can point the finger at others because our society in relation to food is still at some kind of baby stage, inspired by Robert Kegan’s order of consciousness over a person’s life.
The last 50 years of rapid development of supermarkets and trade, which I myself am a proud participant in, we have not been able to keep up with the role as a consumer. Too much food we choose to buy without thought. But we have, in all our roles within the system, employee, consumer, etc. together managed to create a super efficient global food system in which we can increase food quality in the future.
What, then, should we do as traders? Investing in meat with three hearts on the package (in supermarkets in Denmark) is a signal that we want animal welfare. Ecological procurement points towards the desire for health, nature, biodiversity, etc.
From experience, I know that the food industry, after all, when it picks up enough signals, adjusts its supply to them. And I have first-hand experience that the positive side effect is that over time, commercial employees become curious and want to learn more about the food they offer. Thus, the vicious circle can certainly be broken when more consumers step into character and take responsibility for their purchases. That the vicious circle can be broken is true, is also proven in international studies in different metropolitan neighborhoods in selected countries.
Quantity makes a big difference in our modern food system. And if an increasing number choose more healthy food more often, our food culture can mature from its current young state in too many socio-economic groups to a more widespread, modern, socialized, adult and responsible state, – and there has never been a better chance of doing so, because in cities we quickly take color of each other, and the cities of the world are growing rapidly.
This interesting story is folded out in: ‘There’s enough’. The book can be bought/ordered home in bookstores, directly at Aalborg University Press or through my website: www.derernok.dk