This edition seems to be all about big pictures. Nothing wrong with that, not at all. But here’s a little dessert before the main course: The Delicious, Ancient History of Chocolate and Vanilla. I offered my opinion on at least part of the story last November, but don’t let that stop you enjoying it.
Some names crop up here more often than others. One of those is Marion Nestle, with whom I agree on most of the things she says about food systems. (Confirmation bias; mea culpa). One of the things she is most vocal about is industry-funded studies, which – suprise, suprise – often result in good news for the funders. Food-industry people generally respond with smoke and mirrors. Recently, however, Nestle published her answers to some very sage questions from an agribusiness intellectual powerhouse, Professor Ray Goldberg. Goldberg’s questions are spot-on and to the point. Nestle’s answers are too:
I wish there were more.
Marion Nestle also pointed me to a fantastic interactive piece from the Wall Street Journal, which examines and explains the various ways in which agriculture’s wastes flow down the Mississippi, leaving big problems in their wake and ultimately creating the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
I wish Ray Goldberg would explain how agribusiness thrives even as it destroys its support system.
Paternalism and nanny state are both loaded terms, each freighted with negative undertones. And yet, might we not all benefit from a bit of protective parentalism and care?
I read Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, with its recipes of “libertarian paternalism”, when it came out in 2008 and have been impressed over the years with many of the ways in which behavioural economics and choice architecture have been implemented to help people select “good” options.
Massachusetts General Hospital carried out one of the bigger post-Nudge studies, with its cafeterias implementing traffic-light labels – green is healthy, yellow is less healthy and red is unhealthy – and choice architecture – healthier items are easier to reach. Sales of green-label foods went up, while those of red-label foods, especially beverages, went down over a two-year period. But there’s more.
Mass General then wanted to test an even more parentalistic approach, in which hospital staff would be sent regular emails about what they had bought in the cafeteria along with “personalized health/lifestyle tips” and “social norm comparisons and financial incentives for healthier purchases”. To do that, they needed to know how many calories each cafeteria item contained. That study doesn’t finish until March 2020, but in the meantime the researchers went back to the original study and, armed with the new data on calories, looked at Calories Purchased by Hospital Employees After Implementation of a Cafeteria Traffic Light–Labeling and Choice Architecture Program. And lo! Calories per transaction decreased by 6.2% over the two years, with a 23% drop in “red” calories and only a 4% increase in “green” calories.
There’s a lot more analysis in the paper, and this bit struck me:
After adjusting for employee characteristics, the changes in calories per transaction over 2 years were significantly different by race/ethnicity, job type, and part-time job status but not by age or sex. Black, white, and Asian employees had the largest reductions in kilocalories per transaction, while Latino or Hispanic employees did not have a statistically significant reduction in kilocalories per transaction at 2 years.
I wish I knew what that signified.
But here’s a spoiler. If everybody in the world wanted to eat the recommended daily quantities of fruits and vegetables, there woud be a massive shortage. And the shortage could be even bigger by 2050 than it was in 2015.
Even under the most optimistic socioeconomic scenarios (excluding food waste), many countries fail to achieve sufficient fruit and vegetable availability to meet even the minimum recommended target.
The study, from CSIRO in Australia and the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington DC, pulls together a variety of different models to come up with its dire predictions. And it doesn’t have much to offer in the way of solutions, just the usual suspects of public policy, investments and interventions and consumer education.
I wish I could see that working out.
One of the few benefits I’ve not seen trumpeted about post-Brexit Britain is the possibility that farmers and gardeners in the UK will be free to grow the varieties they want, liberated from the chains of the EU’s Common Catalogue. It isn’t mentioned in a massive report from the Royal Society of the Arts or in the Guardian’s report on that report.
A minor detail.
The RSA’s report does set out a pretty comprehensive roadmap for the journey from EU vassal to sovereign, sustainable, food-secure greatness. Its 15 bullet-point recommendations are the stuff of dreams.
I wish I could live long enough to see any of it come true.
Me, I’m gearing up to get the podcasts going again. If you’re reading this, you’re probably a subscriber, so you will automatically find out as soon as the next episode is live. Can I, though, ask a favour? Please try and get a friend of yours to subscribe too.
Many thanks, and best wishes,