Food, Facts And Factoids: What Do We Need To Know?

Food is rising rapidly up the agenda. Allotments, biofuels, calories, customs, eating disorders, famine, farming, fats, fibre, foodmiles, GM, health, organic, packaging, processing, salt, seasonal, security, sell-by, sustainability, vitamins, water…. Where do we begin with what to eat and drink?

Modern society has moved from food as nutrition and survival to food as an element of our leisure experience. Until recently it’s been seen by many as an issue to be left to dieters or even ‘health freaks’.

But now people are beginning to ask what food’s about. The immediate answer to this question could be, it’s all very confusing. There are ‘facts’ and there are, it seems, ‘food factoids‘; and there are some consequences for action, when we think things through….

Here are some general headings and questions about food which may help:

Nutrition (Should we eat it?)
Strange as it may seem, for most adults there is still more concern about calorific value and ‘losing weight’ than there is about the nutritional value of what we eat. Almost everyone wants to be slim; yet despite concerns in many parts of the world about obesity and health relatively few people actually eat their fruit and veg ‘Five A Day‘.
We as consumers still don’t fully appreciate nutritional information or understand the significance for our health and well-being of salt and other minerals and vitamins, various sorts of fats, fibre, ‘additives’, sugar, glycaemic index, units of alcohol and so on; and in some respects nor, completely, do the experts.
The healthy eating message is beginning to sink in, but questions around nutritional labelling and how to project the public health message continue to loom large.

Children eat too (Is food for kids especially important?)
Even (especially) for children, the health impact of being overweight, along with issues around longer-term well-being and educational outcomes, are now major concerns, as Jamie Oliver and his School Dinners campaign keep reminding us.
It is not altogether clear however that poor children necessarily have ‘worse’ diets than better off ones – possibly because even wealthier children eat ‘the wrong things’, albeit from choice (kids of all sorts it seems won’t eat their greens). But perhaps some groups consume ‘nicer’ food than others, even though the direct nutritional value – or not – of food consumed by children may (sometimes) vary independently of income.
So what more if anything needs to be done about family eating patterns, or advertising food to children, on the television and elsewhere? How much value should we put on meals together as a way to promote family well-being and cohesion?
And how important, as a good start, is breast-feeding? Should we as a society do more to encourage it?
Or should we emphasise exercise more than nutrition, to protect children’s physical and mental health?

Organic? GM? Nano? Sell-by date? (Is it wholesome?)
Confusion reigns when we look at the science behind modern food production.
Is organic</a.truly better? (Who says so, and why is it so pricey?) What about free-range? What’s a superfood? And do superfoods really exist?
Has the product we’re about to eat, or an antecedent of it, been
genetically modified? Is that good or bad? – and for whom? consumers, farmers or other people in the developing world? Also, how has it changed the food?
What of
new techniques? Are any food nanotechnologies involved? Whatever would they be for? Are they good or dangerous?
Who decides
‘sell-by’ dates? And by what criteria?
Can we trust the
Food Standards Agency, the government and European legislation and everybody else involved in food regulation and statutory labelling? What about the consumer organisations and the supermarkets? Who knows best?

Presenting, preserving and not wasting our food (Is tinned OK and who needs packaging?)
How can we tell whether tinned food is as good as frozen or fresh? How much packaging is required for hygiene and how much is, for instance, simply there to make food look good?
What’s the relative
energy and resource cost of different ways of preserving food?
And, crucially, how can we ensure that food we buy is not wasted? At present one third of food purchased – in restaurants, shops or wherever – in the UK alone is simply thrown away: hence the
Love Food Hate Waste campaign. Perhaps even with today’s relatively higher prices we are more careful about food if we’re locavors, when we know locally who grew or prepared it, and where, than when we don’t?

Food miles (Does it cost the earth?)
Food travels the world in strange ways. We (in the UK) get tomatoes and lamb from the other side of the globe, yet we also grow them ourselves.
How to tell people usefully about the
food mile cost of what they eat may be a moot point. It’s not just how many miles, or even carbon footprint: it takes some eight units of grain to produce one unit of beef; but some people still reckon that good value – including, no doubt, growing numbers of consumers in China and India, who have a preference for an affluent Western diet.
So sometimes the real cost or value can only be calculated by comparing what would happen if foods of equivalent nutritional or other sort of value were produced in a different way. And how would you put that on a label?

Biofuels (Is growing ‘food for cars’ acceptable?)
We all know that we’re using too much oil, charging around in cars and planes when often we don’t need to.
Biofuels seemed for a while to be the perfect way out of this – grow crops to substitute for more usual oils. But now, as the UK’s Chief Scientist has said, we know there are costs too; some biofuels are neither sustainable, nor ethical.
And on top of this we must acknowledge that
biofuels, like food for people, takes up valuable land space. The question is, what’s the ‘right’ balance – if there is such a thing?

Water used (Will it increase global tensions?)
There is an emerging awareness that food is mainly water, and that water is the also the most precious (and sometimes wasted) commodity in its production.
If the
beef-to-grain carbon ratio is high, the equivalent water ratio is many times more so. (Let us pass on the comlex issues around food for domestic animals and pets – there is an important balance to acknowledge here between these animals’ functions as sources of security and comfort for people, and their costs to the environment – but who has looked at this balance?)
There are those who believe that
water, not oil, will trigger the next global disputes; but as yet few of us have thought how to approach the global issues of water scarcity and food.

Food prices (Can we afford it?)
The cost of food against income has fallen for most of us in the first world over recent years. Now it’s beginning to increase again to more traditional levels – though it will probably stabilise – as global issues such as draught, climate change and biofuels impact on the market.
Food habits have changed from agrarian times, but often seem nonetheless to lag behind the reality of what’s available, and may say more about cultural expectations or how a person ate when they were young, than about what’s now regarded as ‘best’ for them (or, indeed, with modern advertising the converse may also be true on occasion).
Perhaps people need to know about les
s expensive and more nutritiousalternative foods, if the ones they’re used to become more expensive, or may now be known to be less ‘healthy’? But who can best tell them?

Commercial advantage and competition (Do supermarkets cause ‘food deserts?)
Allied to this is now a fear that supermarkets placed in disadvantaged or poor areas will result in so-called food deserts, where poor people can no longer afford to buy even the basics of a decent diet.
But some observers say that food deserts are really
different types of access, or actually an urban myth or ‘factoid‘. Evidence for these food deserts is to date far inconclusive – indeed, some research indicates that when supermarkets come to poorer areas, both the economy and local people’s diets may improve.
So how can we indicate
economic ‘value’ and nutritional benefit in the contexts of where people live, what they expect to eat and how they get access to their food?

Customs, symbols and traditions (What sort of foods for whom?)
Shared food has always been a way of bonding – we cut cakes and ‘raise a glass‘, offer potlatch, drink tea and conduct many other ceremonies across the world to denote belief, position or togetherness.
Then there’s the fascinating question of why
different people in different places and at different times eat different sorts of food. Sometimes it’s easy to explain – ‘luxury’ and difficult to obtain foods are reserved in almost all cultures and communities for conspicuous consumption on special occasions, for instance – but often there are other styles and patterns to eating too.
And what do we know about
‘healthy’ diets across the world? Why do people in some places live longer and fitter lives than others? What traditions and customs help us keep our communities intact? And is any of what we might learn about customs and habits of food consumption transposable from one community or culture to another?

Seasonal, allotments and home grown (Should we grow it ourselves?)
Locally produced foodin season‘ is the new mantra, but it can’t be the whole story. There are many localities which can’t provide the full spectrum of nutritional need. Varied diets often require varied sources.
Nonetheless, an
appreciation of the cycles of nature helps us to understand how our food is produced and what makes it special. ‘Seasonal’ recipes draw attention to the possibility of ingredients with a low carbon footprint, just as allotments, smallholdings and local market gardens offer the possibility of learning about how what we eat grows.
Producing and sourcing food locally may not resolve all our problems, but they certainly have their place in the spectrum of things we as consumers can enjoy and need to know. How about allotments for everyone who wants one (there are long waiting lists in some places), and special efforts to grow – and eat – vegetables and fruit in schools and other community locations?

The food economy (How does all this fit into UK plc?)
There are many things to think about here; just ask the politicians, farmers and market gardeners. And that’s before we get to talk about European subsidies and farming compensation packages
That however is not the whole story. Slowly, we are grasping the interconnections between the
economic impacts and needs of farmers and growers, and how official policies affect the welfare of the wider rural and urban economies. Never again, hopefully, will problems like foot and mouth be addressed without understanding the fragile complexities of the rural economy as such; and hopefully too in future the wider public will perceive the business and scientific complexities of matters such as animal vaccination.
But let’s understand that
not all food needs to be produced in rural areas. There’s plenty of scope also for townspeople to develop opportunities and skills via commercial companies and social enterprises around food, as is evident from the popularity of city-based organic foodstores, local vegetable deliveries and farmers’ markets… not to mention the universal interest in restaurants and cafes in modern day society!

Food, farms and famine (What about the developing world?)
If opportunities for stabilising the food economy remain to be developed efficiently, effectively and well in Western economies, how much more so is this true for those parts of the globe where even the grain supply is critically under-resourced, and where water and food are in desperately short supply. These were the sorts of concerns of the Downing Street Food Summit in early 2008.
Many people would like reassurance that the
food they purchase is ethically sourced and gives a fair return to the farmers who produced it. And we need to understand much more about the food supply chain, as Professor Tim Lang of the Centre for Food Policy has been saying for years.
Movements such as Fairtrade are gaining wider recognition – plus a greater share of commercial shelf-space – and are critical to our understanding of food as a global issue.

Sustainability and ‘food security’ (Will there be enough food for everyone?)
There are those who fear we are
sleepwalking into a global food disaster. We need to find ways of adjusting our eating habits (and other consumption) without delay.
Currently it’s said that humankind acts a though we had
three planets-worth of resources at our disposal, not just one. And that’s before we start to look at how population is increasing (in the UK as well as almost everywhere else).
It is also suggested that,
in contrast to the current situation, the UK (and doubtless numbers of other nations) could with ease be self-sufficient for food if everyone were vegetarian – even though our lifestyle in the Western world is many times as water and carbon intensive as that of people in developing countries. Veganism, of course, is even more effective as a way of feeding everyone. Becoming ‘selfsufficient-ish‘ (and largely vegetarian-ish?) can be achieved in most, except perhaps the most extreme, locations.
These last few observations offer a rather pointed context for all the other matters discussed above.

What questions and views do you have about food?

Posted on May 5, 2008, in Education, Health And Welfare, Knowledge Ecology And Economy, Politics, Policies And Process, Regeneration, Renewal And Resilience, Science Politics And Policy, Sustainability As If People Mattered and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I enjoyed your coverage of how complex the issue of food in the modern world (and fuel from food) is.
    In Sweden, I believe that there is evidence that poorer people actually do eat worse than those that are financially better off. The main reasons being the poorer people tend to have less education and therefor knowledge of the importance of nutrition, but also of course because that “altered and tampered” food like GMO or articial addivitives are by nature less expensive, but also not as good or even bad for you. For example, I just recently changed to organic soaps and shampoos without any additives and especially no petroleum products – what a difference!
    The food vs fuel issue is a very difficult one, and an area that we all we have to learn to understand better. My belief is that renewable fuels, also by nature, come down to a question of how much can you sustainably produce on an acre/hectare/etc of land. Be it solar, wind, bioethanol or biodiesel. Biogas is a very attractive alternative. In Swedish conditions, you’ll get three times as much biogas from sugar beets as you will ethanol. That means you need just a third of the land to produce a renewable fuel. As its the sugar that’s interesting, I’m sure that same would apply to Brazilian sugarcane, but I don’t think anyone has tried that yet. More interesting, its a fuel that is available today and that is usually made from waste products, be it kitchen scraps, sewage sludge or manure. I.e. no effect of food prices. European car makers are releasing several new gas-powered models this and coming years, and engine efficiency is good and expected to get as good as in hybrid as future diesel-electric hybrids, now that’s impressive.
    For examples of biogas as a fuel, check out http://www.calstart.org/info/publications/Swedish_Biogas_%20Tour_2004/Swedish_Biogas_Tour_2004.pdf
    Also, eating food that is in season, in addition to all of the positive effects you mention, allows for us to eat a varied diet – which is important – each food has its own content of vitamins, minerals, etc and we need them all – even if we can’t eat them all the same week. I think that when we go and by imports all year round, the food tends to be the same. Tomatoes, cucumbers, sallad, beef, etc…. I’ve recently started collecting recipes in order to learn how to cook seasonly. I’ve never enjoyed my time in the kitchen this much! I’m cooking up a storm three times a week!

  2. There is a fascinating debate to be had over the effects of energy supply and oil depletion on food supply. As someone who has been slightly sceptical about the claims of Peak Oil proponents before this, I have to say that their predictions are coming true.
    Read (and listen to) some of the things that the respected Colin Campbell has been warning us about and we cannot plead ignorance. Our dependence on oil and our unwillingness to move massively and rapidly away from an oil-based economy is bringing unintended, but entirely predictable consequences: the rise in fuel costs (either because they are oil-based or oil-index linked), market turmoil (we value companies on the misplaced understanding that there is an abundant energy supply) and, as you are considering here, a rise in food prices and food shortages. The latter is due to the fact that we have a farming industry utterly dependent on oil-based fuel and oil-based fertiliser and pesticides.
    What are we to do though? I firmly believe in the ingenuity and ability of man. However, even with that understanding, we need a massive reduction in consumption. It is not just a reduction in food consumption but other resources that are reliant on oil too. Fresher, more local organic food is one approach but will it sustain the population?
    These questions and more need to be answered. The debate needs to start and it needs to be open to everyone and anyone but it must be on the understanding that our status quo is wrong and damaging.
    It is perhaps the biggest question of our time. Climate change is happening but Peak Oil is happening now and will hit us hard and sooner. Its time we took action.

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