If you bought a car and then realised it had thirty percent less horsepower than an older version but was being sold as though it were the same model, wouldn’t you be annoyed? That’s essentially what’s happening when you buy mass-produced food today. Did you know the nutrients of mass-market tomatoes (which, for all intents and purposes, may as well be called red water vessels) have all decreased since the 1960s? Similar trends have been found in many of the foods we eat. Essentially, this means that whilst we might think we’re getting more for less (as food has generally become cheaper), we’re actually just getting less.
As Brian Halweil put it, “the erosion in the biological value of food impacts consumers in much the same way as monetary inflation; that is, we have more food, but it’s worth less (in terms of nutritional value).” This points to one of the many failures of our current industrial food system: mass-produced may be cheaper but it’s not necessarily good value. In fact, if we consider the impact of our current food system on the individual, society and the planet, we may conclude that it’s outright bad value. Forget apples and oranges, what do we do when we can’t even compare apples with apples?
If we start to consider the broader value of food, we see that mass-market food doesn’t represent the value we think it does. There are lots of examples to suggest that by buying “better” food, we invest into a whole host of personal, societal and environmental outcomes that outweigh a price premium.
THE VALUE OF FOOD
To consider the value of food, it’s important to remind ourselves what the point of the food system is and what an ideal system should deliver. The food system should supply sustenance and be universally accessible. It should deliver economic and social value in creating jobs and maintaining livelihoods. It shouldn’t compromise its own future, for instance with environmentally destructive practices like mono-cropping degrading the land and rendering it inadequate for farming later on. A food system should also provide cultural value, helping us create social bonds. Lastly, food is also intrinsically about pleasure: it simply makes us feel good.
The value proposition of food exists on several levels and needs to be considered both in production and the product itself. On the production side, food creates or destroys value through its economic, environmental and social impact. On the product side, food creates or destroys value by providing energy, nutrition and pleasure, or in contrast, empty calories and harmful levels of additives that adversely impact health. The value of food is therefore a very multi-faceted concept.
The industrialisation of our food system has prioritised yield and price (essentially favouring quantity over quality) at the expense of many other aspects like taste, nutrition, or emotional value. It has also alienated most of us from the food system. As a result, we’ve come to understand it less and are therefore less able to judge the broader value of food. This narrow perception has led to some very unwanted outcomes.
A recent nef report paints the UK food system as an unsustainable mess: it’s too energy intensive; it doesn’t reward workers appropriately; it’s volatile and a small number of large organisations hold too much power. Globally, the food system doesn’t fare any better. It’s highly carbon intensive; is responsible for biodiversity loss, deforestation, pollution; and doesn’t fairly distribute value to those that create it, as farmers and other food workers have some of the lowest paid jobs in societies across the world. Though dismissing the current food system as entirely broken would be unfair – it’s quite phenomenal what has been achieved with our food system in the last fifty years in terms of short-term crop yields and economic output. It’s also worth pondering whether the food system was indeed ever better than it is today, or whether the food system was ever “not broken”.
Ultimately, we’ve forgotten how think about the value of food beyond its immediate functional purpose. When we actively think about the value food though, we start looking it at from a different angle – one of investment, considering the broader and more long-term impacts associated with it. This consideration for the later as well as the now is one of the key differences in thinking about food as an investment act versus one of consumption. Indeed, we can pinpoint many of the shortcomings of our current food systems to this polarity. A better food system is possible though, and is in fact already emerging. Considering food as an investment, both on an individual and societal level will enable this shift to continue.
INVESTING IN FOOD TO INVEST BEYOND FOOD
When we look at food as an investment decision rather than a consumption one, we start seeing beyond the immediate benefits of satisfying a need or desire (“I’m hungry!/I want this”) to other value that may be derived from it. We already do this on some levels. For example, if you decide to eat fruit and vegetable because you want to have your “5 a day”, you are investing in your health and wellbeing. Let’s look at this further from an individual, societal and environmental perspective.
What constitutes a bad or good food investment decision from a personal perspective? To answer this question, we need to look at what we each obtain from food. First, food is functional: it provides us with calories and nutritional benefits that enable us to survive. Second, food fulfils more than just a function, it’s also experiential through our enjoyment of food, and enables social bonding by bringing people together, it’s a pillar of cultures across the world. Using examples of meat, bread and fresh produce can help us frame these different attributes.
Intensely farmed meat, much like the water-vessel tomato, has lower nutritional value than non-intensely farmed counterparts. Grass-fed meat, for example, is healthier than grain-fed meat as the latter contains fewer nutrients like vitamin E, beta-carotene, and more of the wrong type of fatty acids. What’s more, grain-fed animals are also usually fed additives and antibiotics to fight disease and other ailments resulting from the intense rearing practices. We’re also likely to get more pleasure out of non-intensely farmed meat. Considering that some chicken in the UK is pumped with up to 18% water and additives, it’s no surprise the flavour is weak and the texture poor – we’re just paying for water.
If we compare real bread to a cheaper more mass-produced kind, there are also varying individual benefits. Real Bread is one that has been made using traditional techniques, without the use of processing aids or any other artificial additives. Industrial soft bread on the other hand contains additives, chemicals, too much yeast and high levels of salt – all of which are harmful to our health. Also, this bread is high in refined carbohydrates which have been shownto lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels. In contrast, eating real bread, like sourdough can is better for you as it’s high in nutrients like calcium, zinc and magnesium and is more easily digested. Which one do you think makes for a better investment? Bread isn’t the only food with excessive additives. Excess sugar and salt is found in all sorts of processed foods, many of which you wouldn’t expect. Tesco Crispy Beef with Sweet Chilli Sauce, for example, has more sugar gram for gram than vanilla ice cream – while a bowl of rice crispies has more salt than a small pack of salted crisps.
Fruits and vegetables are another good example of reduced nutrition with more mass-produced options, but knowing what constitutes a good or bad food investment in this case isn’t necessarily straightforward. Several factors impact the nutritional quality of fruits and vegetables such as the specific variety chosen, growing methods used, ripeness when harvested, and how it’s handled, stored, transported and processed. Often these factors are compromised for yield and profit, and with that nutritional value is degraded. Broadly speaking, eating local (which will also lead to eating seasonally as a result of eating what is available at the time) is more nutritious. Not least because local farmers tend to favour taste, nutrition and diversity over shipability, local produce tends to offer increased health benefits as it’s generally picked shortly before being sold, when it’s fresh and ripe.
Talking about investing in our wellbeing by investing in better food is all well and good for those who can afford it but with food poverty affecting 5 million people in the UK, we also need to consider food on a societal level.
Nutritious calories are not widely accessible and with mass-produced processed foods being cheaper than other alternatives, people on a tight budget rely on them to feed themselves. In fact, the lowest 10% of households by income purchase the lowest amounts of fruit and vegetable, and the amount they buy has decreased by 14% in less than a decade. Poor nutrition and poor food decisions, whether by choice or by constraint, have societal repercussions and costs. In the UK, over 60% of adults and 25% of children are overweight or obese, costing the UK economy billions per year in increased healthcare spending and loss of productivity. In effect, we are subsidising cheap food. Perhaps we’d be better off if we spent money on access to proper food instead of treating the symptoms of poor nutrition in hospitals.
The picture we’re painting gets even worse when we consider that when people are unwell, they are usually fed cheap unhealthy food in hospitals which isn’t conducive to their recovery. Hospitals, increasingly under intense budget pressure, have looked to save money on food – where existing standards have already been low. The Campaign To Fix Hospital Food For Good estimates close to 82,000 meals are thrown away every day in England as a result of the food being so bad (hospital staff have admitted they wouldn’t eat the food served to patients). Not only does this contribute to our global food waste problem, it also means patients often leave hospitals malnourished. For those that do eat in hospitals, the food generally served has poor nutritional value. Cheap food in hospitals is a false economy as there is evidence that poor nutrition is extending recovery times.
Social issues associated with cheap food are not just restricted to empty calories though, there are also empty wallets. The relentless push for yield and cost savings have made many farms uneconomical. Whilst we might enjoy the short term benefits of the cost of a pint of milk going down, we maybe less enthusiastic that the number of dairy farmers has gone down by 50% in a little over a decade. The agri-food sector accounts for 13% of employment in the UK, and continued price wars between supermarkets contributed to the number of food businesses going insolvent up by 28% in the last year. It’s a worrying sign that so many have gone out of business, or are at risk, largely due to their margins being squeezed. For example, beef farmers in Scotland have seen their share of the retail price go down from 62% to 48% in the past year.
It’s clear that the examples given don’t point to a well-functioning food system. And given the importance of food in public health and economic activity, it might be worth re-evaluating how we perceive the value of food on a societal level. But challenges on the individual and societal level are not the only failures of the food system. This industrial approach to food is also compromising environmental resources, the very bedrock this entire system relies on.
The basic function of the food system is to provide sustenance today and tomorrow, and there’s plenty of evidence showing that the industrialisation of our food system is compromising on its ability to provide in the future. Deforestation, soil erosion, collapse of fisheries and bee colonies collapse amongst others are both symptoms of and consequences of our broken food system. At the same time, the perceived abundance of food in our society is contributing to food waste – one of the ugliest manifestations of not valuing food properly. In the UK, 15 million tonnes of food are thrown away each year. This a waste of resources in and of itself, and also results in us producing more food than we need, which in turn intensifies all the other environmental issues associated with it.
Adopting an investment approach can encourage farming techniques that don’t lead to negative environmental outcomes. Changing our purchasing decisions and public policy to value this enables farmers to factor in these considerations. As food production is so intrinsically linked to ecological sustainability, there’s a clear case for including environmental benefits of certain types of food and food production in our approach to what we eat. As such, buying food becomes an investment tool for a more sustainable planet.
The case for considering the environment when making a food investment decision is pretty simple: don’t trash the planet because that’s where our food grows. But the investment case here is two-fold: not only are we compromising our ability to grow food in the future, we’re also spending a lot of resources today on growing food that is not nutritious – a double-whammy of bad investment. Conversely, buying more environmentally friendly products tends to be associated with buying more seasonably, more locally, which in turn is better for you.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO INVEST IN FOOD INSTEAD OF CONSUMING IT?
A narrow view of food’s real worth to ourselves, society and the planet, continues to feed a broken food system. If we move from a consumption mindset to an investment one, we can increasingly appreciate the value creation and destruction associated with our eating habits – which may, in turn, enable us to make better food decisions. Making these decisions won’t necessarily be easy but as we increasingly take on an investment approach and educate ourselves, we might just start making choices that contribute towards a more harmonious food system.
Blind pursuit of yield and price has produced impressive outcomes. Yet it’s also created a food system that is compromising people’s health, financially squeezing actors in the food supply chain to breaking point and fundamentally undermining the land’s ability to sustain itself. There’s no such thing as a free lunch: Cheap food is often produced through the destruction of other types of value. So perhaps it’s time we realised that we can’t really afford cheap food?
This article was originally written for the March issue of Contributoria with Michael Minch-Dixon.