A bit of theory
Writing about another Nigella, or a new form of food fusion, could be quite the way to grab the attention of those interested in food systems. Sadly, however, this post is about a new theory of the relationship between all things food; and where those relationships overlap and compete. First off, it’s important to say that this is a theory. The reason it is important to state a theoretical position is not to bore you, but rather to spark a little interest in thinking about food systems from a different perspective.
Its all wonky
You see, we (at Sumfood) think that the food system is upside-down, back-to-front, skew-wiff – no matter how you describe, it is broken. And we have a theory why. Of course, much has been written about our distance from the food supply chain, our alienation from farmers, the rise of ‘Big Ag’, the control of food systems by 10 large companies – and all that stuff is relatively true. But, our big bone of contention is that this does not leave the food consumer (you) helpless and hopeless. Power comes through how we spend our food budget*. We have been made to think that we are hapless pedestrians in the food supply chain, willingly snapping up whatever bargain the big brands throw at us, and, through successive generations of dumbing down food knowledge, we find it hard to make decisions (given our general lack of knowledge of all things food) and so, become victims to the marketing spin provided by food companies.
The knowledge paradox
There is a bit of a paradox at play. As we have, generally, become less informed about food, the whole area of food knowledge has grown as a niche/desirable/elite area where (ironically) what used to be the area of the staff has morphed into the domain of those who have the time, financial resource and education to whip up fresh hollandaise sauce to smother the morning eggs ‘benny’. I am not intending to be cynical (it comes naturally), rather, I am wanting to set the scene for the ‘new model’. In summary: our food systems are based on complex supply chains, which are controlled by a few, our general knowledge of food is not great (kids can code but can’t cook), and those with the greatest power to influence food systems are those who are least likely have to deal with substandard food. The food system is not healthy (and the whole area of sustainability and environmental impact of food production is worthy of another paper).
Its not just about theory
Understanding the food ecosystem is the first step in identifying what needs to be done. We think the ecosystem consists of three core components – first up, safety. Here we find people like the regulators and science community; with the objectives of keeping systems safe (not necessarily sustainable, or healthy, or affordable, or relevant). The next group is those involved in food security, that is, those who are involved with making sure that we have access to food. This group includes producers and retailers; the objectives are to make and sell food (not necessarily concerned with whether it is sustainably produced or healthy – although for some groups this is their core mission, for example those supporting fair trade). The final group is you… the consumer. Our role is based on how we interact with the food system – our level of knowledge, level of food security, culture and values.
Bad things happen in the over-lap
If you imagine the three domains of the ecosystem in a Venn diagram, the places where they overlap are where food related illness occurs (caused by foodborne illness, contamination, adulteration, obesity and malnutrition), and where food recalls and food waste happen. It is these issues, caused in the over-lap, that are of great interest to us. We have been witnesses to a great deal of advances in food systems, yet, the number of food recalls due to contamination, rates of foodborne illness, levels of obesity (and conversely levels of malnutrition) have not truly abated. Why is this? Well, the interventions that are used to “fix” the system are piecemeal and tend to occur only within the area of interest / influence of the party involved – there seems to be little interest in what happens in the over-lap.
No magic bullet
We do not believe that there is a magic bullet to fix the broken system, nor is it the responsibility of any one group. We believe it is all of our responsibility to have the knowledge and know-how to demand greater integrity for the stuff we put in our mouth; and we are making it our mission to bring the conversation back to the consumer, to arm the consumer with the knowledge needed to question and challenge and to be the driving force in changing food (and world) systems for the better. Big job? Yes, but someone must make a start.
*Food insecurity is an issue that we take seriously and, in its broadest sense, refers to our ability to access (that is, the food is available) and purchase (we have the resource, can get to the store etc) food. The ability to influence food systems is, in our opinion, directly related to the level of food insecurity – those in the higher socio-economic bracket have greater food security and, therefore, greater discretion in purchasing; those in the lower socio-economic bracket have greater food insecurity and less influence over food systems.