Food – time for big change

I love food. Growing it, cooking it, eating it. It’s such an important part of our lives.

As part of a client project we’ve been having a look into the future of food – how we all relate to food, how we afford it, what we eat, how we eat, how are we going to feed ourselves in the future, how much we all love St Jamie. It’s a lovely thing to be doing – but oh boy is it scary.

I’ve written before about why we all need to get more interested in food. It’s getting more expensive. The era of cheap is over. The food chain has some vulnerabilities in it that were highlighted by horsegate.

Lift the lid on what’s going on in food today and there are some reasons to be very cheerful – the quality of what we eat has never been better. We’re much more adventurous now – willing to try out new things, treating food less as fuel and more as fun.

No veg for me thanks

But there are also some really worrying things going on. Let me share.

Food’s getting a lot more expensive. Prices have risen 29% since 2007. Inflation for the same period was 16%. The poorest households now spend 16% of their income on food – and have cut back on health, transport etc. to compensate.

They are also buying less food. Not trading down just buying less. Less fruit, less veg, but more sweets. Austerity cooking is big – check out the quite amazing Jack Monroe who has become a kind of austerity superstar. Start here with Hunger Hurts.

austerity superstar
austerity superstar

She points out that there are two kinds of food poverty – not having enough money, and not having enough education. This is kind of worrying. It turns out most Brits can cook maybe 5 recipes without looking at a book. People find cooking from scratch a hassle. Michael Pollan talks convincingly of how people are put off cooking by the idea of chopping up an onion. And if you can’t be bothered to chop up an onion you won’t be needing Delia’s How to Cook.

first peel your onion
first peel your onion

The use of food banks in the UK has gone through the roof. Up 300% from last year. And most strikingly of all since the school holidays started usage has gone up 150% in some areas. Without schools feeding their kids it turns out many parents can’t afford to give them three meals a day.

Despite all this we still chuck loads of food away. UK households bin 7.2 mt a year – of which 4.4 mt is avoidable. 32% of all bread binned. 24% of veg. 20% of fruit.

So we’re buying less fruit and veg, and we’re still chucking a quarter of that away. And what we are eating is making us fat.

Obesity is at record breaking levels. 27% of 35-44 year olds. 32% of 45-54 year olds. 34% of 55-64 year olds.

Food futures

What’s interesting is that nobody’s happy with this state of affairs. It’s striking that – across the board – people are thinking more broadly and more deeply about food. What to buy, what to cook, what to eat. Where it comes from, how it got to my plate.

It’s pretty clear to me that we are starting to rethink quite radically our relationship with food. Thankfully – and this is really exciting – there are now tons of smart people in the food business plotting exactly this kind of revolution. Question is how much change, how fast?

Food brands – ones that we trust – have a big role to play in this revolution. That’s producers, retailers,  as well as the new rock stars like Jamie and Hugh.

One area we need to get our heads around is the new food technology. The Brits especially have an immediate rejection to the idea of GM food. And I have to confess the idea of lab grown burgers doesn’t sit right with me at all. But there are some big issues we have to confront here.

it's a burger Jim, just not as we know it
it’s a burger Jim, just not as we know it

Take the recent tech-burger grown from stem cells. Eurgh you say. Me too – but consider this:

– world demand for meat is forecast to rise 70% by 2050

– already 1/3 of the farmable land is used for livestock or livestock feed, so 70% more is going to be pretty tough

– one stem cell burger process can produce 20,000 tonnes of “cultured beef” – enough for 175m burgers

– the equivalent number of cattle required to do that is ca 440,000.

When you add into the equation that animal husbandry generates around 18% of the greenhouse gases the case for lab food starts adding up.

It’s a big issue. Either we’re going to have to eat less meat. Or we’re going to have to get used to the idea of tech-burgers.

Food’s about to get very interesting.

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