The year 2015 will, hopefully, like a meteorite falling from the Universe divert the attention of humanity to our plates. The Expo in Milan heralded its theme “Feeding the Planet, energy for life” to the worldly audience, so Italy has become the epicentre of the quake for the global food movement. The World Expo highlighted the issues with feeding healthfully the growing global population. If possible sustainably, so food for the future generations is safeguarded.
When talking about future, we must consider the present situation.
There are two billion malnourished people, while one billion is overweight, and about a third of the food produced in the developed countries gets wasted. In the current situation it seems that all we need to do for an almost perfectly fed world is to fix this calculation so it equals ZERO. The UN ‘Zero Hunger Challenge’ alerted the visitors of the Expo in Milan by making sustainability the focus of the new millennium – promoting breed and plant biodiversity, reducing food waste, and balancing the ecosystem that through our activity has been miscalibrated by the profit and quick fix driven troop of multinational heavyweights (McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Burger King, Danone, Kraft, Nestle, …).
Corn-fed landscape of monocultures
Did you know that the most widely planted crop in the world is corn? Not grown for us, but for the animals and even fish, that do not have their digestive systems suited to this grainy feed. As a result of feeding the cows grains they suffer tremendous digestive discomfort and pain. What is unethical is that we may eat some of this corn-fed flesh, but a large proportion of it gets wasted in the process from slaughtering, storage or transportation, to throwing away unfashionable cuts.
Since corn is cheep, all possible derivatives from this often genetically altered crop are used in manufactured foods to sweeten, homogenise, thicken or otherwise manipulate the heavily processed product. That is one of the major factors of the drastic food price drops over the past half century. The manufacturers feed us with vastly unnatural colourings, fillers, and stabilisers, while the real food content is minimal, as if it were just a seasoning on the long ingredients list. The US food corporations are still the food processing gurus, and Europe with Japan did not linger behind. Recently joined by developing countries, the development’s magic mantra seduces to such irresponsible misleading shortcuts.
Nature vs “Frankenstein” science
The future challenges us with concerns about food safety and its availability to the ever increasing global population. Yet, the volume of the voices demanding ‘clean, real’ food is higher than ever, enforced by the bass-booster of the information age.
Does the future of food nest in the so called “Frankenstein” science (better performing GMOs, lab meat)? On the contrary, will we flip back to the ancient, self-sustaining, low-scale farming methods, organic agriculture, seasonal eating (for the affluent, while preserving foods for the poor with time to spare) and pastured animals?
Echoing the environmentalists, sustainability-seeking and animal rights-fighting groups, the popular culture now seems to forge a global movement alerting the established multinational companies and corrupt governments towards more fair, nature and animal-friendly approaches to feed humanity. The increased popularity of organic groceries, local farmers markets, vegetarian and entirely plant-based diets, and the calls for transparency hint towards the new-old directions of our food system. This anti-homogeneity movement (such as the Italy-born Slow Food) could balance the excesses of modern mass production that pollutes the environment and is often detrimental to our health. As ironic as it may sound, after a century of limitless exploitation, for our own benefit we start to crave what our great grandparents had – seasonal & homemade food. Is this though a realistic path to the global food stability?
Learning from recent history: global solutions to stability
Power struggles combined with scarcity of food lead to unrest, wars and deaths. This ultimate survival assuring phenomenon still holds true despite the deceptive changes in improved fertility and thus availability of food since the past century.
Post-wars industrialisation and the mass exodus of people from the countryside to big cities created the need for food produced by someone else and conveniently delivered to one’s work or home. In swelling cities the soaring popularity of convenient frozen ready-meals, quickly microwaved and even faster consumed, set the foundation for serious health problems such as CHD we face today. The homogenous processed flab of a meat patty tastes like a cardboard, but is cheap and accessible to most diners with no spare time to cook in the fast-paced “developed” world.
Technology progressed, and with the “Individually Quick Frozen” procedure in the late 1990s the energy consumption was reduced mainly due to this minimally processed technology. The innovative bug never sleeps, while it ushers both positive and negative changes to our everyday lives. Therefore, we must be vigilant and critically assess all novelty.
Omnivore paradox: Acceptance vs familiarity
Ingrained cultural values and tendencies oscillate between traditional ingredients and dishes and the ‘omnivore paradox’. While Italians more likely stick to pasta, Chinese to pork and the Argentines to a beef assado, the natural diversity introduces new foods into our diet and we can either accept or reject them. Yet, the access to a wide range of ingredients consumed in a rotation of seasons should interest the growing population if better quality is to be secured.
Tasting the sweet white asparagus in spring, honey-reeking cantaloupe in July, ripe figs in August, salivating from the aromas of the fresh porcini in the fall, and marvelling at the weirdest shapes of heirloom tomatoes, are some of the pleasures we were missing at the endless supermarket rows. Ironically, filled with often very similarly tasting produce (salt, sugar, water), they do not offer much. We should reconnect to the web of food relations including respecting the nature’s seasonality.
Challenging our survival instinct in the near future might be: rapidly growing global population, disrupted climate, more frequent natural disasters such as floods, droughts, wild fires, earthquakes, and other calamities.
Our survival is ultimately our responsibility, and food-wise it depends on:
- how we affect our climate, but also how climate changes naturally itself and how we can adapt to it
- how do we affect our landscape and how the animals and crops respond to it not just in terms of their growth but also the nutritional availability and density of their meat, milk, eggs, …
- cleanliness and temperature of our seas and oceans and how it shifts the food chain in water’s realm; but also how sustainable are our fishing techniques (trailing leading to by-catch, antibiotics or unnatural feed introduced through fish farming)
- how do we directly affect the animals that we consume – grass-fed beef contains healthier fats than grain-fed, etc.
Climate is a whimsy shaker of our already quite unpredictable life. Whether our terrestrial activities further volatilise it (for example leading to more droughts and consequently less water to grow and farm our food) or its moody behaviour is a natural cycle we cannot influence, we need to find solutions to secure our food supply. Water demanding crops like rice, and higher in the food chain – meat fed with plants like corn, need to to be reduced in favour of the less ‘thirsty’ ingredients. Seasonal eating could also minimise the impact of the greenhouse gases in excess generated through production, transportation and the longevity extending packaging of supermarket foods.
Landscape and soil are sowed green with the magic drops of water that nourishes the plants. If we deplete the sources of our ground water, then any “green revolution” (introducing sprawling monocultures and water-intensive planting) as it happened in the 1960s Punjab, India, will turn into a natural disaster. Concentrated chemical residues not just burden the soil, but they ultimately lead to less of total food produced from an acre of land. Closer to our fork, a third of total food produced globally is wasted. We need to rethink how we treat leftovers so we can feed the hungry.
Pollution of our soil, waters and the air undeniably worsens quality and safety of natural produce. Eating fish was promoted as essential in a healthy diet, but the level of mercury in predatory fish is so high today that pregnant women and small children are strongly advised to avoid their consumption. Arsenic in the soil poisons rice, and nuclear plant disasters pollute tea leaves and other crops grown in the proximity of places like Fukushima in Japan. What seems to be healthy on the superficial level, can be sickening when consumed regularly in large quantities.
Food could be a medicine as the ancient Chinese and Greek sages observed, but as the dose casts its spell, the once curative food turns into a poison. Some progressive chefs, between them the most influential chefs in the world, study the effects of pollution on our ecosystems, and ponder over the future plans for their restaurants. The three Michelin stared Italian chef Massimo Bottura created a murky plate of bait fish, squid, oysters in a calamari broth titled ‘Pollution‘ as a “meditation on the transition between what we know today as seafood and what seafood will someday be.” As he demonstrated, the chefs will find a way to create tasty food from anything that remains.
An increased demand for certain popular seafood and industrial fishing has reached the limits of the oceans’ natural reproduction capacity. Read more about the state of our oceans in Dan Barber’s book The Third Plate.
Our popular source of protein, meat, had been altered from its natural form through chemistry. Feeding animals with growth hormones and antibiotics is not just unnatural for them but we ingest all of that through our meals. The consequences may be an antibiotic resistance, alterations in our immunity, and perhaps even of our DNA. Eating much less meat and animal produce will be necessary for the future. Considering that during the past 50 years, the global meat consumption increased fivefold, and that protein hungry population is growing, we will need to cut down. A side benefit for health perhaps reversing the obesity epidemics and reducing CHD are complementary.
Sustainability, organic agriculture and keeping the growing population in balance is costly, but as the world is getting richer at the same time we can speed up our return back to nature.
Meet the influencers
The human loudspeakers raising awareness and spurring trends in our eating behaviour are:
Media. Not any more limited to publications with large circulations, the internet with popular blogs are more open to discussion and self-publishing has never been easier. Fashions in diets such as raw-foodism, vegetarianism and vegan eating are widespread, and the increased amount of literature including cookbooks and specialist lifestyle magazines, offers better alternatives and endless options. The rule number one for most media is to publish regularly and to grab readers (viewers) attention. They nourish the users curiosity about novelties.
The media also reflect the popular voices and the past decade saw the launch hundreds of magazines devoted to sustainable lifestyle. Healthy eating is now not just the concern of mothers raising children, but also of many childless professionals and the ageing population. Having more years to live healthily requires better nutrition and this trend will probably increase in the coming decades. Even fast food is turning into an expensive healthy liquid nutrition with juice detox and liquids only energy source for many city dwellers.
The most influential individual authors in the English speaking world remain Michael Pollan, F.M Lappé, Marion Nestle and Alice Waters, all of whom call for better quality, transparence and local food sourcing. Vandana Shiva alerted India on unsustainable exploitation of its vast land and dangers for the farmers in frequent contact with chemicals. That pesticides have been linked to poisoning not just the pests, but also our soil and our bodies should not surprise you, but it shocks.
Politics involve lobbies of powerful food companies and the systems’ dependence on money makes transparency in the food chain and honesty in labelling an issue to circumnavigate rather than to deal with. The post-war chemical agriculture that rocketed up the synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, would hardly stop, unless the voters constantly and loudly call for it. Further, oil dependence in agriculture is dangerous for most countries without direct access to it, therefore self-sufficiency is the best solution to avoid conflicts.
The 20th century was also the beacon of cheep food revolution. The average family budget reserved for food dropped drastically in most Western countries. In France as much as almost 30%. As efficiency stuffed more our pockets, we have more left to spend on dining out. Eating at restaurants is growing and chefs now wield more power over what we eat than ever before. This socio-economic shift, together with the ageing global population will define the future of political actions. Obesity and its consequences became a high burden on our healthcare systems.
Grassroots organisations like the Slow Food movement established by Carlo Petrini in Italy in 1989 also spread globally. Many restaurants now seek their “snail” of approval sticking on their doors. At the Expo the organization has a large presence putting an accent on biodiversity. Displaying how our corn, wheat and other crops have been artificially modified and how limited the natural bounty has become.
Slow Food was founded to:
“prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the raise of fast food and fast life, and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us.” What slow food also supports the ancient system of crop rotation that naturally fertilizes the soil.
NGOs and charitable trusts like the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in the interest of ourselves and our habitat advices to adopt these sustainable practices when buying food.
Science steps in
How much has changed since Petrini’s desperate cry up from the Piedmontese hills! Through its University of Gastronomic Science in Pollenzo, where the world’s most distinguished chefs such as Ferran Adria give regular lectures, the interest in food surpassed its mere feeding aspect. Culture, community, landscape, quality, animal and producer’s welfare are on the forefront of its curriculum.
Science can be also confusing. One study can uproot another. As it happened with the hyped-up results released last year by the Cambridge University, that made headlines and even the cover of the Time magazine. Slab butter on your slowly-fermented bread and do not worry about your heart (saturated fats did not worsen the heart’s health in the study) was the massage that “butter is good, sugar is evil” pointing at the black and white limitations of our thinking. Open your mind and use consciously your intelligence when assessing research like this. By using reason you may well conclude that balance is best for our health and our society.
Nutraceuticals like dietary supplements and ‘functional foods’ are taking the Hippocrates’ alleged recommendation “Let food be your medicine” further. Creating the perfectly nutritionally balanced, by science backed healthy foods for everyday consumption sounds like a no-brainer. Long life seems within our reach. The well researched ‘Blue Zones’ confirm the possibility of extended lifespan through proper nutrition, but also by adapting a certain health-promoting lifestyle, so the magic pill is yet to come!
Through the above influencers the meaning of food is also changing. The family meal is being replaced by eating out or individual consumption of ready-made packaged edibles.
Decoding the future of food is like suggesting that there will be one way of transport between places. There are endless options for what catches on and what will not assimilate. Ultimately, we decide what we eat.
Some might be attracted to the made-to-measure feeding covering all of your nutritional needs, but not these foodies emotionally involved with food. Food is for many more than just a fuel, it feeds our emotions, improves our social outings, asserts our social status or wealth and stimulates creativity and joy from everyday life.
A futuristic nugget for technology users. My sibyllic prophecies on the food’s future contemplated the phenomena of sharing salivation-stirring food images on the social media. As the 3D print technology evolves, are we going to, in a decade or two, print our lunch in the office from a highly sustainable virtual menu consisting of anything imaginable for our taste buds? With a magician’s whip, a plate of delicious meal comes out of your 3D printing machine. I have no idea how they would make it tasting amazing, but one thing is sure, if it is affordable enough chefs will be out of work, kitchens become redundant in our homes, and any global food crises will be solved for eternity.
Forecasting anything is a risky business, which can be made more precise if current attitudes, behaviors and activism are included in the calculation. Our current actions will affect our children and their offsprings, and if you are not too selfish, you will try to do best to secure their and their peers’ access to the best quality and diversity of food possible. Unless we grow plants under the sea as they already do in Italy in the Nemo’s garden in the depths of the Mediterranean, cultivate our food in the space or on other planets, which is in a tiny volume already happening under the NASA supervision, we need to adapt to the fact that we have “just one Earth to feed the entire planet”.
NOTE: I’m not attempting to solve this complex survival-pressing agenda in one musing. If you seek more information from authorities in their respective fields, then consider some of my resources bellow.
WWF – World Wide Fund for Nature
World Expo 2015 Milan: ‘Feeding the Planet, energy for life’
Food: the history of taste edited by Paul Freedman
Conspicuous Consumption by Thorstein Veblen – social satire on capitalism and the rise of the “leisure class”
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
Inside the California Food Revolution by Joyce Goldstein
Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé
What to Eat by Marion Nestle
The Guardian’s Sustainable Business food hub online