Perhaps the ultimate challenge

July 1, 2017

There certainly is no lack of challenges on the path to feeding a growing world population, but a successful future does not just stop with food volumes. Beyond quantity, it is necessary to ensure that people eat balanced diets. Of course, this is true for those who are food insecure and need help to be able to access more food, but it just as true for the overweight and the obese. The health cost to society is high and is so the cost to the environment. Although excess calories end up as body fat and not in landfills, overweight and obesity should be looked at as food waste nonetheless. After all, body fat is food that has been produced but not consumed for any useful purpose. The problem is only getting bigger as rates of obesity are increasing among the population of emerging countries and are reaching alarming levels. It is not a Western countries’ problem anymore. It is a global one. There is no one particular cause to explain this trend, but it is a combination of lifestyle, example at home and education about the basics of nutrition. We are what we eat and we eat what we are. Diets are undoubtedly a reflection of society and its values.

One of the drivers of today’s economies is growth and too often this concept is restricted to quantitative growth. We must be honest and recognize that our food and agriculture systems still are greatly production driven. Although the idea of a market-driven approach is widely spread, the practice seems to differ, and it looks like it is only translated in marketing-driven instead, always with an underlying production-driven thinking. About all food sector and companies always look for ways to sell more volume. There is competition within any particular industry, but also between industries. For example, in the animal protein sector, poultry, pork, beef and fish are always trying to get a higher stomach share at the expense of one another. Usually, the main decision factor for consumer to make their purchase is the relative price of one type of protein versus the others.

The main message that consumers receive every day is: eat more of this or more of that. Then, it is only normal that they do just that. Why expect any other behaviour? The result is a value system of always more, without really thinking about how it all adds up, while it should be about always enough. Overconsumption leads to waste and to unbalanced diets. Waste is the number one enemy of sustainability, and educating the public about proper diet is actually an important weapon in fighting waste, but it is a difficult one. Although good habits are generally not any more difficult to adopt than bad habits, it seems that the latter group is more attractive. Changing eating habits is all about education. It starts at home and in school. Actually, it is rather easy to learn about the proper ratios between protein, fats and carbohydrates –both fast and slow ones- that are needed in a balanced diet. Information is everywhere, but unfortunately, the lack of education and therefore knowledge about nutrition results in many consumers having no idea how to read labels and how to compose proper meals. If our lifestyles and our needs have undergone major changes over the past five or six decades, physiology of digestion and nutritional metabolism have not changed much at all over the tens of thousands of years that humans have been roaming the planet. It would seem obvious that such an essential element of life should be common knowledge, but it is not. An interesting experiment is to ask people at random what the nutritional needs of an average human being are. Usually, people have an idea about how many calories a person should eat on a daily basis. When it comes to how many grams of protein and even more so fat, then the faces tend to turn blank. Another even more interesting experiment is to ask the same question to people working in food and agriculture. Just go ask how many calories, how many grams of protein and fat. It is an eye opener.

It is possible to make consumer behaviour change from harmful to healthy. There are lessons to be learned from the example of tobacco. To change, consumers need the proper incentives, but the bottom line is that people change only if they perceive the change to be an improvement. Since eating habits rest on powerful psychological triggers, the difficulty is in finding the right triggers and creating a perception of reward. Food producers have a critical role to play in this transformation, and it has to be a collective and collaborative effort with all other stakeholders as well.

Copyright 2017 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.