A memo from Dr Helen Darling, Food Strategist, Orchardist, Foodie and Executive Director of FoodTruths.org
The food system is broken.
Earth’s scarce resources are being used to produce food that often does not survive the supply chain (38% of fruit and vegetables in North America doesn’t reach the consumer) or that is too contaminated to be consumed and is discarded for safety reasons. In 2018, for example, one meat recall in the US involved 6.5 million pounds of beef. That equated to 13,267 cattle being needlessly slaughtered and to raise that number of cattle would require the equivalent of 17,720 Olympic size swimming pools worth of water. Unsafe food impacts human and planetary health.
As a food strategist I have become tired and cynical about the latest technology to ‘protect’ us as consumers, the latest packaging breakthrough, the latest food fraud scandal, the latest contamination scare. I am tired because in one form or another we have heard it all before and we know we will hear it all again; we have now become almost desensitised to the issues plaguing the food supply chain and this desensitisation is borne out of repeating patterns of food issues and of survival – we all have to eat.
Combined with fatigue around food issues we have developed such a false sense of security (that someone, somewhere is working to improve food systems) that we believe it when we are told “scan this barcode and you will know what tree this came from”, “this beef patty is 100% beef”, or this is “extra virgin olive oil”. We believe it until the falsehood and shortcuts impact us directly. Odds are, that if we haven’t already been victim of a scam (juice from concentrate sold as freshly pressed, herbs that are leaves of other plants, wine that isn’t from where it is claimed, spices containing heavy metals) or a victim of food borne illness (one in ten people are, each year, in the US), or a victim of a crime against our religious or other values (non-halal sold as halal, free-range eggs that are anything but) we are likely to be in the next few weeks or days. Unless you are able to produce all of your own food then you are susceptible to the weaknesses, greed, or ignorance of others. It’s all a bit sobering.
Surely there are regulations and standards to protect us? Well, yes there are, and they often provide an effective deterrent as they give a baseline to measure performance and product against. The difficulty with regulatory interventions is that there cannot be oversight of all food production, all of the time: for consumers food production, processing and retail is built on a foundation of trust. We learn which brands we can trust and tend to be loyal to those brand, until such time as that trust is eroded or a more trustworthy brand comes on the scene (this does not take into account price sensitivities). It is important to note that food security (the ability to access sufficient, safe food) is always a higher priority than brand preference.
We have a plan.
I have studied food supply chains and know that there are more good food producers than bad and that if someone in an industry does something unethical or illegal it can taint that whole industry: but, as a consumer it is sometimes hard to know who to trust. It’s for these reasons that I have created FoodTruths because we believe that good food can be produced, packaged and enjoyed. I think that everyone needs to participate in bringing transparency to food production and preparation - actively questioning what we don’t understand or what does not seem right. I believe that the consumer voice will be the disruption that is required to drive better food systems and FoodTruths have a plan for how to do it.
“as a consumer it is sometimes hard to know who to trust”
A single consumer’s voice can do very little, but collect up those individual experiences and knowledge, verify them with other sources and then present them to the relevant person in the food supply chain and change can happen. I believe that, if left alone, our future of food is dismal – dictated to us by a few, no accountability and transparency, no power to create or demand change. That’s not a future that sits well that I am comfortable with; we want and are prepared to fight for a better food future – join us and let’s build a better food future.