This year, the competitors in Bocuse d’Or, which bills itself as the most prestigious gastronomic competition in the world, had to compete with a vegan dish – “composed exclusively of fruits, vegetables, cereals, seeds, or legumes” for the first time. The Swedish Chef of the Year competition required chefs to create a vegetarian appetizer, also for the first time.
These food superstars are not the only ones inventing culinary creations with an eye towards their ecological footprint. As master chefs, they are in the spotlight, and have the opportunity to educate a broad audience. But such inventiveness with food goes beyond fine dining experiences and is evident in well-established food practices in less glamourous settings, in cafes, school kitchens, government-run cafeterias, and the homes of not only fishers and farmers but everybody else too. People all over the world are looking for creative ways to make good food, for themselves and for the planet.
And it’s about time that this trend has begun to take hold. The ways in which we are currently feeding ourselves have high costs for both our health and the health of the planet. The inhumane irony is that while there is enough food in sheer quantity to feed the world’s population, as I write this, starvation is imminent for twenty million people in South Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria, and Somalia. Add to that the fact that the amount of global food waste is at a record high – about a third of total food production aimed for human consumption.
As the global food system becomes more and more interconnected, people’s access to a diversity of food increases around the world. Paradoxically, the diversity of food that is grown and produced locally is decreasing: where farmers in Ethiopia once grew dozens of kinds of wheat, they now rely primarily on one strain, for example. And global connections have led to new risks of food price shocks and volatility.11. Khoury, C. K., Bjorkman, A. D., Dempewolf, H., Ramirez-Villegas, J., Guarino, L., Jarvis, A., Rieseberg, L. H., Struik, P. C., 2014. “Increasing homogeneity in global food supplies and the implications for food security.” PNAS 111(11):4001-4006.DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1313490111See all references
Monoculture. Wheat growing in Sweden. Copyright: Nic Kruys/Azote.
The complexity of the food system and the urgency of the challenges we face make it clear that what is needed is not incremental change, but a drastic shift in how we both produce and consume food, and how we treat it in between, from packaging to distribution. Science has begun to tackle these issues in more integrated ways, including clearer advice on what constitutes healthy and sustainable diets.
The food service sector is already grappling with some of these issues, and my colleagues and I think it can play an important part in supporting a much-needed shift to healthier and more sustainable food production. At next week’s Gastronomic Forum, a yearly dialogue on food futures, experts from across the food sector in Sweden will come together to discuss what we are calling “the good shift” to more appealing, healthy, and sustainable diets. The good shift can in turn be broken down into four parts:
The protein shift
Producing animal protein demands a lot of resources and comes at a high cost to the environment. For example, livestock production emits 14,5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. We need a lot of land to produce feed for livestock. Eating too much red meat can also cause health problems, such as colorectal cancer. Most scientific studies of what constitutes healthy and sustainable diets so far have shown that diets low in animal protein and high in vegetables have substantially lower greenhouse gas emissions and land-use requirements.2-32. Aleksandrowicz, L., Green, R., Joy, E. J. M., Smith, P., Haines, A., Whitmee, S., Haines, A., 2016. "The Impacts of Dietary Change on Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Land Use, Water Use, and Health: A Systematic Review." PLoS One 11:e0165797DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.01657973. Nelson, M. E., Hamm, M. W., Hu, F. B., Abrams, S. A., Griffin, T. S., 2016. "Alignment of Healthy Dietary Patterns and Environmental Sustainability: A Systematic Review." Adv. Nutr. Int. Rev. J. 7:1005–1025.Abstract with links to full textSee all references
In this shift, we need to increase the portion of plant-based protein available in everyone’s diets. Generally, that would mean high-income countries with high consumption of animal protein need to eat less meat, while there can be room for increased intake of meat in some low-income countries with high rates of under-nutrition. We will be likely to also see a change in how we consume seafood: a growing proportion of the fish we eat comes from aquaculture, which puts pressure on fish farms to become more sustainable. New technologies are also being developed for growing insects (both for human consumption and animal feed) and “impossible meat”, cultivated without animals.
Aquaculture. Fish farming in the Färö Islands. Copyright: Andre Maslennikov/Azote.
The quality shift
The food industry today is mainly focused on how much they can produce as efficiently as possible, and most evaluations of quantity and efficiency use kilograms or calories per hectare as a metric of performance. We need to start evaluating the quality of food in terms of its nutritional composition, its taste and flavour, and the sustainability of the landscapes or seascapes producing food, for example.
How we manage our landscapes when we produce food is a key aspect of this shift in quality. It requires a more systemic view that combines the private benefits of what landscapes generate (from profit to the food itself) with public benefits such as ecosystem services like clean water, pollination, and carbon dioxide regulation.
Agroecological landscapes in Brazil with mixed crops. Courtesy of Karin Höök.
The city shift
Cities are melting pots for a diversity of people, and hubs for innovation. The food culture of a city changes rapidly – people try new things and find new habits, eating out or cooking with new influences.
At the same time city dwellers are often the most disconnected from food production systems. Urban populations are often blind to changes in the landscapes that provide them with food, which occur as a result of their habits. More and more people are moving to cities, making this true for a growing part of the global population.
But cities can never exist independently of the landscapes in which they are embedded and rely on for ecosystem services. We need to find incentives whereby the rapid changes affecting consumption patterns in cities can become a positive influence on living conditions and sustainable practices in rural food-producing landscapes. The curiosity and innovation that can be found in cities need to support viable and sustainable communities and production models in the countryside.
Even urban governance can make a change: In 2016, Copenhagen nearly reached its target of 90% organic food in the canteens of its public institutions. By rethinking what is on the plates being served in public spaces, the city managed to provide better food for people and the environment without increased costs, in part because of reduced meat consumption.
The culture shift
Food carries traditions, knowledge, and culture, but this deeper value is often overlooked in discussions of food and sustainability. People are increasingly separated from how and where their food is produced; an urban citizen rarely meets the farmer or fisher behind the food they buy and consume.
We need a mental reconnection that helps us understand the importance of the biosphere for food production and human well-being. Food producers and consumers can take a more active role in being stewards of the biosphere. Reconnecting consumers to producers, and fostering knowledge and culture around food, will be important steps towards feeding a growing population well and farming within the constraints and opportunities of this planet.
An example of this shift in mindset comes from Adam Arnesson of Jannelunds Gård, a farm just north of Stockholm. He calls himself a planetary steward, with a goal of his farming practice being to make life better for people, animals, and plants while improving the climate and environment.
Pass the cauliflower. Swedish chef Mathias Dahlgren opened Rutabaga, a fine-dining vegetarian restaurant in Stockholm’s Grand Hotel. Copyright: Bobo Ohlsson, Creative Commons and courtesy of Grand Hotel.
These four shifts are for all of us, not just Michelin-star chefs. Regardless of where we live on this planet, we all need food in order to have a good life. Food is part of our cultures and ways of being. But the ways in which we produce food currently are the single largest driver behind global environmental change, from the ways in which we use land and water, to the energy and chemicals we use to grow our food and make it into something else. Not only does how we eat determine our own health, it also determines the planet’s health.
To be successful, the good shift has to go beyond sustainability and health. We need to look for solutions that are attractive, and rich in flavour and culture. We need to think of this shift as framed by creativity: an opportunity to concoct delicious meals on our plates in good ways. And this is actually happening now, as people from the food service sector join home chefs, farmers, and other food producers in a search for the best tasting and healthiest solutions. We must all be the judge of this new trend’s success.
Show references (3)
1. Khoury, C. K., Bjorkman, A. D., Dempewolf, H., Ramirez-Villegas, J., Guarino, L., Jarvis, A., Rieseberg, L. H., Struik, P. C., 2014. “Increasing homogeneity in global food supplies and the implications for food security.” PNAS 111(11):4001-4006.DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1313490111
2. Aleksandrowicz, L., Green, R., Joy, E. J. M., Smith, P., Haines, A., Whitmee, S., Haines, A., 2016. "The Impacts of Dietary Change on Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Land Use, Water Use, and Health: A Systematic Review." PLoS One 11:e0165797DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0165797
3. Nelson, M. E., Hamm, M. W., Hu, F. B., Abrams, S. A., Griffin, T. S., 2016. "Alignment of Healthy Dietary Patterns and Environmental Sustainability: A Systematic Review." Adv. Nutr. Int. Rev. J. 7:1005–1025.Abstract with links to full text