Different kinds of foods evolved everywhere human civilization has flourished throughout the history. Food is not only essential to human life as bundles of nutrients, but it also creates and sustains cultural identities.
Whether you’re a foodie who loves trying multiple dishes at fancy restaurants, or someone who sees food as nothing but fuel, we all have one thing in common – we all need to eat to survive. This simple fact makes food an integral part of our lives. The meals we eat frame our day, fuel us with ever needed nutrition. Sitting around a table of food with family and/or friends creates a sense of community and belonging.
Introduction of industrial scale irrigation and farming technologies, wide use of industrial fertilizers, pesticides, and development of genetically modified crops (GMO's or as they are called today "genetically engineered" food) throughout the last few centuries dramatically increased the amount of food produced per unit of land across the world. In most parts of the world food became cheaper, and available throughout the year, no longer bound to the seasons.
But, is all that really as great as it sounds? Let's dive into this...
If food is cheaper and available everywhere, why is the number of people rising fast who can't afford food?
If food is cheaper and available everywhere, why is the recent rise in demand for food banks?
From an economic perspective there are several phenomenon that creates food insecurity...
Food is still the essential input to ensure that any society produces goods and services.
Food is also one of the main provider of jobs to any economy.
Food drives consumption.
The increased productivity goes hand in hand with worldwide supply chains.
Production is shifted to locations where it is cheapest to grow and process food.
It is not only why we process food but how we process food that has changed dramatically with time.
Worldwide commodity markets are increasingly volatile due to unforeseen social and economic changes, both natural or planned.
These additional aspects are quite telling:
Firstly, there is the disturbed social value of food.
With ever-present food, food lost its importance for survival.
Some kind of food is available whenever it is desired, and can be consumed at any point in time.
People no longer need to cultivate seasonal food.
The society lost the tradition of producing food themselves.
Specific forms of food consumption, such as fast food, has spread around the world.
People lost key skills how to prepare traditional meals, let alone how to cook the simplest foods.
Another main driver behind food innovation in modern society is convenience. In just 60 years, the amount of time spent preparing the evening meal has gone from 1.5 hours to just over 30 minutes. There has also been a dramatic change in the family unit in these 60 years. The number of women working outside the home has dramatically increased and the number of single-parent families has tripled. It’s not surprising people aren’t keen to spend 1.5 hours in the kitchen preparing a meal with the kids at their heels after a long day at work. It is not only why we process food but how we process food that has changed dramatically with time. Yet, the average household still manages to squeeze in nearly 4 hours of television daily. So perhaps we need to be honest about whether we have time to cook or whether we are choosing to spend our time doing different things.
Yet, ever-present food doesn't mean that healthy food is affordable, accessible for all.
For affluent folks, there is a previously unimaginable range of choice of nutritious products, cuisines and outlets available.
For poor folks, there is often only cheap ultra-processed foods and fast foods available.
For time-poor individuals nutritious food costs more, not only in monetary terms but also in time required to prepare them.
These observations show that the role of food in society is much broader than just nutrition. This means that diets are shaped by deeply rooted norms and routines, by economic structures and by ever-presence of food in society.
It is clear that any interventions to make changes to diets for individuals or larger populations need to take the several key dimensions into consideration to be effective.
As consumers we need to be truthfully informed and have the obligation to let manufacturers know what we consider to be acceptable (we feel the line has been crossed) with our purchasing power. The "uncontrolled" innovations in food processing disguised as the solution for food insecurity, to reduce food waste or decrease the environmental impacts of food production puts simply more money in the pockets of food manufacturers.