Do you remember the imperative for us to do everything we could to reduce food waste? That was so 2015! Back then the NGOs and organic industry lobby were running campaigns showing the awfulness of (corporate) food industry excess and waste. The narrative has since shifted. Now we are told that natural is good and food spoilage is part of nature. What changed?
Five years ago, the NGOs used their food waste argument to demonstrate how we could feed the world with lower-yield organic production if we would just stop wasting food (up to 50% food loss, they claimed, largely caused by global food conglomerates). Outside of the logical inconsistency (how could organic food with more mould, blight and infestation not go to waste faster?), this campaign was merely a rhetorical trick to defocus the narrative away from the argument that lower organic agriculture yields would affect global food security.
Since then the narrative has spiralled further into the absurd. Food security and better farm yields are no longer an issue at all. Today influencers like George Monbiot are trying to convince the media we don’t need any agriculture at all and activist cults pushing the climate collapse scenario have written off our need or preference for mixed diets. “Food waste” has been redefined as “meat” and non-local production.
So that’s that then. Conventional, industrial/factory farming is on its way out (as soon as we can get 98% of consumers to change their habits and go vegan like those “in the know”). The food zealots can proudly pack up and return to their privileged dens … unless …
The Next Big Fear
Not only did the foodies quickly forget their imperative to stamp out food waste, their latest dogmatic obsessions are embracing food spoilage.
Twenty years ago, working for the chemical industry, I was impressed at how better food packaging prevented nutrient loss, reduced food contamination and lengthened shelf-life. We were not only making food safer by keeping contaminants down, we were reassuring consumers and improving food quality. Plastic-wrapped cucumbers remained edible for five times longer than the unwrapped; ripening food (like black bananas) could be repackaged and rescued from the bin. Then came the bagged lettuce revolution and western diets improved massively. The sheer convenience of an instant salad or fresh soup put a balanced, healthy meal on even the busiest home’s dinner table. This was a public health gift from chemical innovation.
But plastic is not natural.
Cue the zealots. This week sees the launch of the third “Mass Unwrap” campaign where the sanctimonious descend on their local supermarkets to demand that they no longer use plastic packaging to protect our food supply. Somehow these activists think 1.5g of wrap on a cucumber in the UK is going to flow directly into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Food waste or contamination is not an issue for these anti-plastic campaigners. The skittish supermarkets don’t care about the science or the shelf-life of their produce and seem eager to relent. I suppose they just want to keep the hippies off their sidewalks (or get me to come back into their shop every couple days for another “unwrapped” cucumber).
In the 1970s, one of my jobs on our farm was to regularly peel the visibly slimy layers off the lettuce so we could still sell it to the public. Thank you very much but today I’ll buy my bagged lettuce somewhere else then.
By removing the perception of food safety, by increasing prices due to food loss and by reducing the visual appeal, consumers will no doubt eat less fruit and veg in this naturopath-driven food system. Do not forget that one of the best ways to reduce cancer risks is to increase consumption of fruit and vegetables (at least five servings a day).
Should this loud, irresponsible naturopath minority be allowed to decide on the health and safety of the majority? They think so (and are proud to tell us how “uninformed” we are). But I can remember the waves of food poisonings and outbreaks in the 1970s in my region (it was just local news then) in the pre-plastic packaging age. Like the anti-vaxxers and organic lobby, going natural might entail some “tolerable” societal trade-offs.
A New Natural Nudge
But it seems that rotting food is natural and we need to embrace it. Any attempt to protect food with packaging or preservatives is unnatural … and unwanted. Any chemical that preserves food, except maybe salt (so long as it’s “organic”) is now considered off-limits. Chipotle led the charge in 2017 for fast-food to go preservative-free, and the other large chains followed them down that E. coli rabbit hole.
Last week Burger King unveiled its “Beauty of No Artificial Preservatives” campaign showing how its Whopper is “food chemical-free” (but probably still containing some natural chemicals) and will go mouldy after 34 days.
This Whopper tale goes against the key marketing principle that your product should always be presented in its best light. Burger King is counting on the consumer’s appreciation that rotting is natural and that their burger’s natural “spots” add value to the brand. While they want this image to counter the ’20-year-old McDonald’s hamburger’ (that hasn’t decomposed), McDo is already ahead of them in the “all-natural” burger game.
So while the fast-food chain’s consultants seem to think that going all-natural and rejecting protective food-safety measures will meet customers’ expectations, the underlying narrative frightens me. Burger King is suggesting that the means to protect food, particularly beef, from pathogens is undesirable. Forget decades of advances in food science and the achievements of public health and food safety research – the naturopaths want their food to be all natural … and that is what they’ll get (at 2000 calories a meal).
This is not simply about a mouldy burger or a company’s foolhardy decision to put marketing over science and public safety. Burger King’s food waste budget will escalate alarmingly. Given the complex logistics chain of a fast-food giant, like Chipotle, there will certainly be food poisoning outbreaks in Burger King’s restaurants. No doubt their crisis coms team has taken this into account.
Worst of all, rather than using the long history of scientific research to protect food, Burger King is promoting the “let nature take its course” philosophy. In promulgating the synthetic=bad and natural=good myth, are they also supporting anti-vaxx and alternative medicine naturopaths in this deadly dichotomy? Burger King has effectively adopted the anti-vaxx argument: that it is better to roll the dice with nature than to rely on our long history of scientific achievements in public health advancements. What a disgrace!
If Chipotle announces they will stop using synthetic chemicals to clean and disinfect their kitchens, how long before these lemmings at Burger King follow suit?
What follows is an article from my earlier blog-site, originally published on 16 July 2015. It is interesting to republish this from an historical perspective as it shows how I was responding to the activist campaign to limit food waste. The NGOs were claiming then that organic farming could feed the world if we just stopped food waste. Since then, it seems that few of their donors and the public really cared about food waste (so they then shifted to the fear of chemicals and plastics used with foods to prevent food waste). The nice thing about zealots who say “No!” to everything is that they can contradict themselves and simply respond with … “No!”.
When speaking on food issues, I sometimes poll participants with a question: How many of you would buy a black banana? Only a few, usually those suspicious of me, would raise their hands. Even though we know that a banana is at its most nutritious when it turns black, we resist this rationality and follow the emotional path. Emotion is what food choice is about.
In the last few months, the organic food lobby has tried to use the global food waste data to their advantage. They have accepted that organic food cultivation yields are much lower (consensus is around 40% less than conventional farming depending on crop and weather), but rather than admitting that as a problem for global food security, they have chosen another tactic. They argue that we are producing more than enough food but the actual problem is that we are throwing too much food out. Stop food waste and we would have no problem going organic.
This is a simple solution to a complex problem. Definitions and data on food waste are complex and as food use shifts, the numbers, while scary, should not be fuel for alarmists. Within the data are two definitions that should not be combined: food waste and food loss. Food waste is that which gets thrown out between the retailer and the consumer. Food loss is that which does not make it to the retailer and can include everything from market failures, infestations (from rats to pests), infrastructure issues or redirection to other uses (animal feed, biofuels and biomass). The food loss data are much higher although this depends on regional issues and market prices so reliable statistics (and trends) are hard to come by (the perfect situation for alarmists).
Religion and belief
I understand that if you really want to believe something, then any argument that justifies the emotion is considered acceptable. But wanting to believe something does not make it factually correct, no matter how many times you and your gurus repeat it.
Trying to use the need to reduce food waste as a reason to shift to organic production is attempting to exchange a rotten apple with a rotten orange (or a black banana). It is not a rational argument, but a vain attempt to shift the argument. The food waste issue is not a response to the policy concern about global food security risks – a serious concern as agriculture tries to meet the challenge of a growing, more affluent global population. If a Belgian supermarket has to throw out a container of local cucumbers, this does not have an effect on food stocks in Burkina Faso and does not justify lower yields in Belgium. It merely means that the Belgian market needs to be more efficient.
Let’s not even get into absurd pretence that in their perfect world, organic food would not be thrown out (surely in the future we will all love our food with worms, scabs, deformities and mould).
It seems to all supporters of organic food, that there would be no food security issue if we all just stopped throwing food out. It is man, once again, responsible for this problem (assumption: industrial farmers wilfully grow too much food just to make profits and then force us to chuck it). But here we find a cornucopia of contradictions in the organic food logic.
- Food processing would be the ideal way to avoid food waste (especially as highly perishable crops like tomatoes are harvested at the same time and ripen quickly), but who are the main critics against processed food?
- The chemical industry has developed techniques for extending the shelf-life of food through better, more intelligent packaging. But who are the main critics against food packaging? (See a delightful attack against Dow’s claim that their plastic film can keep cucumbers fresh for 14 days longer. They also attacked images of peeled bananas wrapped in plastic … what else can retailers do when people refuse to buy black bananas?)
- Global food manufacturers are best placed to distribute food surplus to markets in the most efficient and timely manner. Unfortunately, because of public mistrust, strict regulations have been imposed on the food industry with severe legislative and litigious consequences for any transgressions on food quality standards. Furthermore, organic lobbyists are promoting a vision of small, local production and their gurus spread a food fetish against big infrastructure.
- By genetically modifying certain fruits, vegetables and grains, they can last longer and resist certain fungus from spreading. OK … we know the story on this one.
So science and technology are capable of preventing much of the food waste issues, but the problem is that all of these solutions are, well, man-made (and for the organic activists, thus undesirable). The problem for them is man – the source of all waste and destruction. We have to learn to eat food with imperfections, not throw food out, stop using expiration dates on food and learn not to be so emotional about food quality. But that is just the point: food is an emotional subject – it is religious. The organic activists surely must realise this given that they are the most emotional on this subject!
Emotion and trust
When something goes inside my body (or more so, into the body of my chlld), this is 99% emotional and 1% rational (the perfect risk perception situation). Quality is important and is affected by many emotional factors: smell, touch, appearance, brand relationship, memory … all of this before it gets to our mouth and is enjoyed. Taste is the last emotion experienced before the body takes over and does what the food was actually designed for. Nowhere in this process do we find the question of avoiding food waste and global food security. Still, that seems to be the only thing the organic food activists want us to consider (for them, sacrifice … and the related sanctimony … seems to be the guiding emotion).
Emotion dictates that a banana should be the right shade of yellow. But the rationality is different. The banana is a good symbol of how man has intervened and created the perfect food. Bananas were originally darker, more bitter, harder with large seeds. The bright yellow Cavendish banana most of us eat today (95% of cultivation) is the result of generations of plant breeding and modification by science to deliver high quality nutrition and resistance to serious pests and diseases. When a banana is harvested, it is managed through a complex global distribution chain (mostly via three global corporations), often travelling on ships across oceans before ripening somewhere between the supermarket stall and my kitchen counter. Today’s banana is anything but natural, but our perception of it is what matters. We trust a yellow banana, not a black one.
Food is about trust – people who eat organic do not trust the conventional food chain. People who throw food out do not trust the safety. Those who have become ill from food poisoning are less likely to trust food on the basis of what authorities or producers say. People pay more for what they perceive as higher quality.
Trust is not a rational concept – it is emotional. Trust is tied to familiarity, predictability, history and perception of quality (see my schools blog on trust). It is not about reason or facts.
Rhetoric is not evidence
Pushing an argument that makes no sense and runs up against the tide of shared emotions only to try to win another argument is a recipe for failure. Some things that can go wrong when the irrational tail wags the organic dog:
- Attempts by some well-meaning “global planners” to remove expiration dates on foodstuffs would be disastrous. When I find something in the back of my fridge that has expired, it is my decision whether to run the risk and should the consequences be “unpleasant”, I would take full responsibility. If there were no expiration date and I risk the runs, then trust in the food chain suffers.
- Trying to change the way people eat (those lovely self-righteous nudgers) is like trying to change the way they love or dream. How I eat is my business, not yours, and if you try to bring politics into food (for our benefit or that of the planet … like eating bugs to reduce CO2 emissions), at best, I’ll be patient, but don’t expect me to be polite.
- Food is cultural and communal. Sharing a meal or providing sustenance to loved ones is an essential part of our inter-personal relationships. Asking people to change and adopt other practices will face resistance. Europeans, especially the organic activists, do not want to adopt American culinary practices and it is their right to protect their cultural heritage.
- As an emotional experience, food is about feeling good about yourself, both physically and mentally. The organics know this – they feel good about eating “natural” (what they assume is chemical-free).
As a religion, this personal food obsession is fine – we all want to feel good about ourselves. But the minute you try to nudge others to act the same way, then you had better be sure of the facts and aware of the consequences, and this is where the organic food argument breaks down.
The science behind supporting organic agriculture is simply not there. Organic food is not healthier, puts greater strains on biodiversity and limits public food choices. The point that organic farmers also use toxic (albeit natural) pesticides shows what a scam the whole industry has become. Organic industry lobbying has raised ethical alarm bells. The consequences for others:
- higher cancer risks for those unable to afford the higher cost of fresh fruit and vegetables;
- malnutrition and starvation for those living in less fortunate geographical and economic circumstances;
makes the recent lobbying campaigns by the organic industry borderline criminal.
The debate is not about ignoring the organic food industry’s shortcomings by instead reducing global food waste. That is a simple tactical campaign ruse designed by organic food industry consultants. Rather, the debate is about telling the truth, accepting the realities and not trying to impose your lifestyle on other less fortunate individuals.
So my message to the organic lobby is quite simple: If you want to feel good about yourselves, fine, buy your black bananas and enjoy your smug sanctimony in silence. Do not curse the rest of us with your self-interested nudging.