5 myths in the sustainable food debate

08 February 2018

Sharing food together

According to the latest UN estimates, there are currently 7.6 billion people in the world, with that number likely to rise to 9 billion over the coming decades. This represents an unprecedented experiment in stretching the apparent carrying capacity of the planet to limits previously unknown.

We know what happens in nature when a species - including us - outstrips the carrying capacity of a local environment - and it isn’t pretty. However, we have equally unparalleled skills in problem-solving and innovation, and we have more energy and creativity to offer when we know the need is urgent, so there’s everything to play for. 

This is about practical reality. The science of food production makes no allowances for how we feel about stuff, for what we believe to be our values, or our rights. Under the right circumstances, food can be produced. Poison the well, and the consequences will follow whatever the damn we think about it.

With that in mind, we need to be focused on the change we want to see in the world. That means an honest and clear-sighted exchange of ideas, informed by facts.

For me, there are five myths in the debate around sustainable food that are standing in the way of us achieving that. 

1. We need to live at the optimum level of food efficiency in order to be sustainable.

We have all sorts of debates about what is the absolutely most efficient way of producing protein, or whatever else it is that is the point of focus. And the unspoken implication of how those debates go is that only the most optimally efficient solution can be sanctioned as being ‘sustainable’. We don’t know this to be the case. We do know that we have to significantly improve the efficiency of food production and, over the coming decade there are all sorts of leads and possibilities that may improve efficiencies in different places. 

A system for sustainable food will only work if it works worldwide, across the entire diversity that is the human race

But nobody has proven - and I’m not sure why you would want it to be so - that we can only survive if every food system has been absolutely optimised to the maximum degree. Let’s hope that’s not the case, because large societies of humans have a desperately poor track record of optimising for efficiency. 

The danger of this way of thinking is that it naturally tends to lead towards solutions that the bulk of the population view to be extreme. It leads people that are advocating for action on sustainable food to be viewed as being on the fringes, removed from the cultural norm of the people they’re trying to influence. Traditionally, that’s a really hard place to win consensus for action. And that’s what we will need. Which brings us to myth number 2.

2. Sustainable food is a systems problem that is solely to do with the efficient production of nourishment

It is indeed a systems problem, and it is indeed to do with the efficient production of nourishment. But scientists, or campaigners, or food industry professionals - whoever - could come up with a fabulous and logical systems-based approach that tackles that problem superbly and they will then hit the wall that is human culture and psychology. Food is something that human societies have made part of their sense of place and identity for as long as we have any records of history - and we can assume for a lot longer than that. Change is possible, but it has to be seen as desirable and with the grain of how people see themselves. We have witnessed a lot of changes in food cultures in the last few decades - growing internationalism means people are now used to a much wider palette of food options, and information about health has led to some aggregate incremental movements in food choices. Change is possible.

A system for sustainable food will only work if it works worldwide, across the entire diversity that is the human race, works across cultural and political boundaries, and works with people the way they are, rather than requiring them to be the way we’d like them to be. That is the exam question - and it’s a lot bigger and tougher than just identifying scientific processes for the production of protein.

And let’s be clear. We want a sustainable world of light, colour, fantastic food, music, love, intellect, sport, science - we want to keep all the things we value (and perhaps could be more grateful for). That’s the aim. Not a hair-shirt world where we’ve been forced into a minimalist uber-efficient diet that we’ve used ingenuity to make barely palatable. We might end up at that second scenario - but that will because we failed. Nobody will vote for people who seem to prefer that second option as their preferred scenario. Which sort of segues into the next myth.

3. Sustainability is something that should become an ideology to be campaigned for

As soon as you think there is only one solution to this problem - your favoured solution - then you’ve lost. Rather than think of it as one outcome that we must champion, rather we should see it as a framework of possibilities to work within. With diverse human societies and cultures, we need to find multiple ways for human societies to live within environmental constraints. And we need the freedom for political parties to disagree and fight over the details of implementation without losing sight of the bigger picture. 

The problem with ideological approaches to scientific problems is that we are all - as a species, every one of us - prone to seeing and hearing only the facts that support our position. We know enough about the science of our own brains to understand that as a phenomenon. When we need to be truly scientific in our approach - that is, always being prepared to study evidence that challenges currently held assertions - we are relentlessly blinkered. It doesn’t matter what the ideology is. Vegans will tend to only hear things that confirm their instinct that only world-wide veganism is truly sustainable. Organic meat and farming advocates will do likewise for organic farming. Ideologically traditional types may look to technologies, whether GM food or lab-grown meat, which promises more efficient ways of keeping things exactly the way they are. And so on, and so on. All of these have things to contribute - because all of them speak to a constituency that needs to be part of the discussion. 


Within every tradition worldwide, we have to make sustainability a desirable part of the relationship we have with food

If we are not in that world that requires one ultra-optimised solution to avoid apocalypse, then there is ideally space for all advocates of different approaches to enjoy their chosen path and, if they hope for other values-based reasons (for instance, animal welfare, or respect for local traditions) to persuade more people to their way of thinking, then they can do so without survival of the species being a factor in the debate.

Of course, such a happy outcome requires exactly what I said we’ll never get. People will always fight like cats in a bag over their positions, and will use any and every lever they can reach to try to bolster their case. That only matters if it stops us from building the consensus we need around the science of what has to be done. And it well might.

4. You change behaviours by telling people how broken things are

Even assuming we have good knowledge about what needs to change, we still seem to be in the dark ages when it comes to knowing how to persuade people to make the change. And there's no excuse, because we actually know more about how people are persuaded that we ever have before.

Let’s put it this way. Every year, countless millions of people try to change their own behaviours on a lasting basis. It may be eating healthily to maintain a lower weight, it may be quitting a destructive habit like smoking, it may be to spend more time with their kids. Regardless of the change, people find it incredibly hard to make the changes stick that they themselves passionately want. Imagine how much harder it becomes if the change is something someone else is apparently foisting on you.

Spouting evidence that it’s for the best, that it’s for their own good, that it’s necessary - these things again have traditionally been poor vehicles for lasting change. And recent events with Brexit and the election of Trump have given some pretty solid indicators that when people feel they’ve been pushed too far ‘for their own good’ they will push back hard. 

It doesn’t mean behaviours don’t change. Look at the recent upswing in veganism. Through the decades when vegans were known solely for angrily and persistently telling people about all the things that were broken with the current food system, they got pretty much nowhere. People weren’t attracted to these apparent fringe fanatics. And if they were vaguely worried about the issues that were being raised, they turned away from them in preference to facing them. And we’ve seen the same phenomenon in how people who shop at fast fashion stores react to information about child labour in supply chains.

But in recent times, you have had a host of young, mostly attractive people who have developed powerful platforms via blogs and YouTube and have become role models for a different approach to food and diets. And the emergence of role models that embrace the positive side of the lifestyle without becoming evangelists has made it much easier to see it as something that is a major subcultural norm. Even then, it will remain a minority, at least for the time being. But it is certainly a much bigger minority than it was.

Honestly, I’m interested in the survival of our species (with as many other species as possible), and I don’t care much other than from an academic standpoint how well different factions handle the campaign for their own agenda. And popular campaign groups will always behave in strategically stupid ways - which is just an outcome of disorganised group behaviour, even if all the individuals are actually extremely smart.

But the basic lesson is this. Within every tradition that shapes human behaviour worldwide, we have to make sustainability a desirable part of the relationship we have with food. That has to be a positive agenda that celebrates the emotional connection people have with food and works from there. 

5. Major corporations / capitalism / farmers / vegans / {name your group of choice} are the enemy, and we will only achieve sustainability when they have been defeated 

These are common problems. They will either be common solutions, or they won’t be solutions. Capitalism is the way the world works. It does some things remarkably well. It does others badly. Other systems have been tried, and were worse in some important ways. The environment doesn’t care, and won’t wait for us to solve big questions about how we organise ourselves before it kicks in with consequences that are completely indiscriminate as to who they affect.

Corporations have shown an ability to push change to scale, and to innovate with important new technologies, in a way that we will need if we are going to address the challenge of 7-9 billion people. Companies are also more pragmatic as far as human societies go, and more adaptable to rapid change.

If we look back at the fall of the great empires through human history, the ends of days for those institutions were marked by visceral in-fighting and division by people who had become so focused on the enemy within they had lost all sight of the wider external context. 

That can be us. It can easily be too late. And, if it is, we will go over the edge of the waterfall to the sound of voices raised in blame and fingers pointed in all directions.

Suppose the task ahead wasn’t how to win the debate, but how to build a broad based consensus with the people you currently most identify as being the problem? Wouldn’t that change the way we planned our activity over the coming years?