Cheap food has expensive consequences but how can we make 'better' food?

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

Cheap food has expensive consequences but how can we make 'better' food?

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Cheap food has expensive consequences for people and the planet's health but how can we make healthier and more sustainable food a reality for a global population? Grass-root movements will be key but industry must also be receptive, says Carolyn Steel.

Last week, policymakers, food industry CEOs, gastronomic chefs and academics met at the Danish Parliament for the second World Food Summit with the theme ‘Better Food for More People’.

FoodNavigator caught up with architect, author of 'Hungry City' and keynote speaker at the summit Carolyn Steel on how urban populations are driving demand for better food. But what is 'better' food and is industry ready to deliver it?

Is food tech distancing us from our food? 

Human beings have evolved socially to eat together and eating food at mealtimes is a central part of all societies, both at a family and community level, Steel said. So what does it say about our society that 20% of meals in the US are eaten in cars or that products like Soylent – a complete meal providing all essential nutrients in one beverage – are tipped to be the food of the future?

“I don’t dismiss technical solutions and am not a technophobe,” ​she told us. “But assuming that we’re just going to invent our way out of trouble is the problem. Technology is our servant, it’s not our master.

“To take the example of lab meat, which is still in its infancy, it’s worrying that it’s being funded by Google. The concept of food sovereignty and control over one’s food is very important. If we’re going to start producing food in a highly technical way using processes owned by big companies like Google then that strikes me as a very dystopian vision of our future.”

Counter currents can change the tide

However, the fact that consumers are buying more ‘natural’, organic food or artisan cheese, craft beer and origin chocolate, while grass-root food movements and community supported agriculture (CSA) are growing, shows there is a genuine demand for something other than quick-fix, silver bullet solutions.

But are these undercurrents strong enough to change the tide of how much of our food is currently produced?

“The industrial paradigm is like a big, visible current at the surface and these food movements are a counter current that’s invisible in a way," ​said Steel. "But what happens at the boundary where those two currents meet is interesting, and you only need a small change in conditions for a huge number of people to climb on board.”

Major food scares, such as the horsemeat scandal of 2013, can be significant triggers that change the way people think about food, prompting them to take a more conscious interest in how food is produced and processed. This swells the movement which, in turn, ends up influencing policy-makers and food industry giants.

That’s why it’s so inspiring to be here at the World Food Summit that is organised by the Danish minister for agriculture and food – believe me, we don’t have an equivalent in the UK – because it’s really going up to the top.”

Delegates at the World Food Summit. Front row, left to right: FoodWrap CEO Marcus Gover , Carolyn Steel, Noma chef Rene Redzepi, Indian Minister of Food Processing Industries Harsimrat Kaur Badal, Princess Marie of Denmark and Danish Minister for Environment and Food Esben Lunde Larsen.

Cheap food, expensive consequences

Steel believes that for change to happen, we also need to move away from the idea that food must be cheap. It is a belief that has fuelled monoculture, factory farming and the proliferation of processed food high in salt, sugar and fat, and has come at the expense of our health and that of the planet.

She accepts it is not going to be an easy sell, for neither governments nor consumers, but stresses “we can’t afford for our food to be cheap”.

“Education – getting people to appreciate the difference between good food and bad – is a key thing but we also need top-down intervention; getting governments to internalise the costs of industrial food.”

Steel doesn’t mince her words. “That is effectively saying food taxes,” ​she said.

“The fact is we are paying the costs of bad and cheap food in other ways. We are destroying ecosystems, becoming ill, abusing animals. If we are to get our ethics and value systems back where they belong then we have to stop expecting food to be cheap.”

Current government intervention are also rolled out when it’s already too late. Moratoria on fish catch size, for instance, are set when fish stocks are almost depleted while the UK’s sugar tax – “too small to make a difference anyway” ​– is introduced when obesity is already a major public health burden.

soybean harvest brazil, soy, deforestation, Copyright alffoto
Harvesting soy beans in Brazil. © iStock/alffoto

Let’s make our food better: A positive, collaborative message

Steel rejects the idea that taxes are seen as punitive. “We are spending this money anyway on cleaning up pollution and huge public health bills. Instead of spending it at the tail end to clean up the mess, we need to do it at the start, and say ‘Let’s not create the mess’. It’s a collective, collaborative way of making our lives better and this is a positive message to be sold.”

Industry can be incentivised to make better, healthier and more sustainable food, and this is already happening.

The UK’s salt reduction programme was voluntary (although encouraged and initially overseen by the government) and saw real success in cutting the amount of salt in bread.

Food companies are not the bad guys but they could be more of the good guys," ​she concludes. "Be ethical and visible – there is a huge, expanding market for doing the right thing. Be the forerunners in that movement."

Watch Carolyn's TED talk on how food shapes our cities:

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