Food and sustainability sort-of predictions for 2018

31 December 2017

Fortune cookie
Photo: Shalbs

New Year is upon us, and the Christmas season is done. We’ve got past eating all the things we always, but only, eat at this time of year, and now it’s time to look ahead to an exciting new chapter.

I should start off by making clear my implacable scepticism when it comes to predictions. In my experience, the majority of writers who make predictions for the coming year do so by the lazy process of observing clearly visible current trends and then simply extrapolating them incrementally into the future. There’s no insight nor surprise to be found in such pieces.

The most interesting changes, of course, are not incremental at all. They’re the sudden shifts when something happens unexpectedly that completely alters how we see the world and how we behave day-to-day. Much harder to predict correctly. Much more interesting. But you can only have a hope of getting those right if you have a profound knowledge of your subject, plus some imagination to see how building tensions in one area might be suddenly relieved.

When it comes to the world of food and sustainability, I am not yet that person. Give me a couple of years. 

However, I do cast my eye curiously into various corners, and from time to time I notice things that I think are important that others don’t. Equally, there are nuances to the obvious trends that are not so much talked about. So, for what it’s worth, here are a few of my reflections on the coming 2018. Reflections. Not predictions. Well, maybe sort of predictions.

1. Vegan alternatives to meat will become more prominent - some will stick and some will fail. For example, it may not happen in 2018, but I predict that the rise of jackfruit as a pulled pork substitute will decline. Why? Because other alternatives will come to the fore, and they will have a better nutrition profile. Jackfruit - for all that it’s a great textural food (see my experience of it here), has no particular protein benefit. Whereas the talk of 2018 is likely to be ‘pulled oats’ - a mix that has been created in Scandinavia which has both the texture and the sound nutrition. Right now, Scandinavians are going so wild for it, it hardly hits the shelves before it’s gone again. And there have been lots of articles in the rest of the world, for example here and here, bigging it up as the next breakthrough. The start-up company producing it is trying to manage the rapid growth it will need to even begin to meet demand. That’s always an interesting sign.

2. We will get serious about reducing food waste. I know, I know. You think that’s pretty much what happened in 2017. Talk about simply extrapolating existing trends. But let’s be clear. We talked a lot about food waste in 2017. We started to get some apps appearing for our phones that aim to connect us with food outlets, or neighbours, that have waste to share. These are great, and they can make a difference on the periphery. But lots of energy is now going into finding solutions to food waste, and 2018 is the year we will start to see some of the results of this that can push change to greater scale. 

Expect the big corporations to lead the charge. Just before Christmas, Tesco announced that it would commit that no edible food would go to waste from any of its 2,654 stores by March 2018. That is a huge commitment. All the major supermarkets had already signed the Courtauld Commitment 2025 which aims to cut food waste by one-fifth. Tesco has effectively leapfrogged that and challenged the rest to keep up. For all that you may think that food and sustainability is led by small scale passionate producers (and it is, at the conceptual stage) it’s not actually sustainable until it reaches scale. And for that, you need the big guns to line up behind it. Once you have solid corporate commitments at scale, all sorts of energy goes into finding solutions. Because one thing businesses are good at is measuring results - and that means there’s nowhere to hide. When they go after the ‘zero’ target, all sorts of implications follow.

3. As part of point 2 above, efforts to manipulate you (in a good way, I think!) will be stepped up in 2018. I can already hear you ask - how on earth can you describe any act of manipulation as a good thing? Well, it’s a big question. In the next few weeks, probably millions of people will be trying to manipulate themselves, along with whatever third-party help they think might work - to get back into healthy habits like going to the gym, losing weight etc etc. I’m off the gym later today for my regular session, and I expect it never to have been so packed - at least since the same time last year. But most of those efforts fail, because we are literally creatures of habit and very bad at doing the things that our higher brain thinks we want to do. In that context, we should embrace a little manipulation. 

Anyway, Sainsbury’s was one of those that looked beyond their own food waste to the food, bought from them, that was wasted by their customers. They have been running several pilots trying out ways to nudge us into better habits. I’m not close to the process, but my understanding is that it has been a difficult and frustrating process. Influencing what we do in the privacy of our own homes is one of the most difficult challenges. How do you motivate and incentivise people? How do you make lasting habits out of good intentions? I expect technology to be part of the answer. I expect appeals to peer pressure to be part of the answer. And I expect to see more evidence of progress in this field in the next 12 months. It won’t be solved in that time, though. That’s probably my safest prediction of all.

The one thing that’s safe to predict is that - whatever your food preferences or situation, 2018 will provide more opportunities to explore and enjoy the best that really great fresh food can offer. It would be a criminal waste not to seize those opportunities wherever they present themselves. Have a great 2018, and don’t be such a stranger.