If we want to shift food behaviours, we need to understand what drives them.
Food behaviour is driven in many ways by economics. So let us follow the money. Any analysis of the profits in the food systems will tell you the same thing. That the money is not going to the farmers that produce our food. The money goes to the ones that trade our food or that add sugar, salt, fat.
A Belgian farmer today sells a kilo of leek for 0,33 euro. The retailer sells it for 1,65 euro. The farmer gets 0,15 euro for a kilo of potatoes. The retailer asks 1,2 euro. So the farmer gets 20% of the sales price. But I can tell you, that the production at the farm required much more energy and time than the trade of it that usually happens in less than 24 hours.
Moreover the government doesn’t allow a retailer to sell its products under the cost price, but sees no problem in farmers that have to do so. They are often forced to sell with loss and live on subsidies instead of getting a fair price for the product they’re proud of. They crave for a recognition of their work. They want to be valued for their job, like any of us. Amongst others, by getting an honest, respectful price for it. Not subsidies.
So the money goes to the ones in between. They have a responsibility to take there. And there’s another big responsibility in their hands. They are also responsible for the pandemic of obesity. We eat what is being pushed onto our plate. We eat the food that is easily available. If we want to influence food behaviours, we need to influence the economics of our food system and our food environments. Change what is on offer, what is easy to be bought right across the school, what is cheap and convenient, what is being promoted on the billboards in the street.
Local, healthy food should be the faster, easier and better option. Not the other way around.
Governments, businesses, NGOs all have a role to play here. And yes, we need those companies that sell fastfood or sugared drinks today. We need their expertise and knowledge. Their tools and tricks. We need their best people. We need them to fight the system they’ve created. We need them to embrace what they see as their enemy. We need them to invest in a local, healthy food system.
We need them to take up a leading role in a different type of food economy. One that is purpose-driven instead of dollar-driven. One that is not about selling as many burgers or fries as possible. That is not about more, faster, cheaper. We need a purpose-driven food economy. One that is about better. Better for the people, better for the producer, better for the planet.
I have been amongst the first to develop an urban food policy. In the past 10 years cities across the world have stepped up and taken the lead in pushing for the transformation of our food system. Why cities? Because they are inherently driven by societal values, and not by profit or loss figures. Yet cities also need to make their budget work.
Let money be a tool. Not the end game.
I would like to challenge companies and think fast forward. The future of a company cannot merely be about selling more and more and more. And then what? What’s the end game?
Few companies have already understood that their bottom line shouldn’t be about financial added value. But about added value that really matters. I challenge any company in the room to reflect on that. On how they can have societal relevance and make that work. Which expertise they have inhouse to contribute to broader societal needs. And how to build a business model around it.
Should the goal of a fastfood chain be to sell as many burgers and fries as possible or should it be about providing access to healthy food? Providing employment opportunities? Adopting inclusive mechanisms? You could start thinking of how your expertise in food logistics can support communities and citizens. Should it be about buying the beef as cheap as possible or about using your marketing intelligence to convince consumers to eat more plant-based? They understand how to make us addicted to salt and fat. So why couldn’t they think about smart marketing tactics to make us addicted to fruit and vegetables?
Should a feed company focus on selling as much feed as possible and make farmers dependent on them or should it also be about supporting farmers to produce their own feed and become independent of large feed companies? Or should they even reflect on how their productive hectares could be used for the production of plant-based proteins for human consumption? I dare you to explore these business models. Not just think about marginal gains to be made within the 4 walls of your business but the real impact your business can achieve. Take a different perspective and you will come up with different solutions. Better ones. And your business model will be much more future proof.
Bottom-line it is about respect. Respect for the people that buy and eat our food, for the farmers who produce the real food, for our planet. Let’s respect food. It’s too important not to do so.
That is also why education is key. We need our children to learn about food, to visit farms, to eat healthily in school. We need to offer them a healthy food environment in schools and around it. And as governments we need to understand that choosing for free school meals, for freely available water taps is not an investment, but will save us a whole lot of money. Look at the Finnish example, where there are free lunches since 1948. The country has a health in all policies approach that tackles vending machines, marketing, sugar taxes, and much more. The country is one of the rare ones that manages to decrease childhood obesity.
Finally I want to finish with the importance of an inclusive food system. Access to healthy nutritious food is a daily challenge for many people. I have argued for fairer prices. Because yes, our food should become more expensive. Just as it was before. And yes, we should ensure access to food. Physical access by fighting food deserts and ensuring that people can easily find and buy fresh food. But also solidarity mechanisms that keep it affordable. I have launched an initiative in Belgium myself that invites parents and communities around schools to treat a food insecure child to a healthy meal in school. And it works tremendously. People are willing to help one another. But facilitate it. Use the tools you have as a society in a smarter way.
And think of inclusiveness in smart ways. Poverty is above all about income. Our farming sector and food businesses are a huge economic sector. We need to see the food system as a leverage to provide incomes for the most vulnerable groups. Use food to have access to jobs. Quito in Ecuador, for example, has developed 3700 urban gardens and developed markets related to them to allow over 4500 small farmers to gain income from their food production. Or Toronto that supports immigrants to get the necessary certificates to start up their own food business. Why shouldn’t food businesses use their intelligence to support startups? Small entrepreneurs?
The solutions we need will be based on connections. Between farmers and retailers, between schools and communities, between industry and refugees, governments and social entrepreneurs. I have worked myself for a large, multinational retailer but I have also worked for a local government, always on sustainability & food. But I see a big gap between different actors in the food system and a real need for a holistic approach. As a social entrepreneur I look at the food system holistically. I look for the missing links. The next steps. And then focus on these powerful and sometimes unexpected collaborations. Bring different parts of the food chain closer to one another. Help them understand and respect each other. Cocreate new and better solutions from there.
To give some examples. I work with large food companies and logistic actors on the one hand and small short food supply chain initiatives on the other hand and explore how local initiatives can tap into the logistic efficiency of the big players. I work with a retailer and a small farmer on the food waste. Not the food waste within someone’s 4 walls that might lead to marginal gains, but the food waste that is caused because of how they interact with each other. How the retailer defines the product specifications, the order deadlines, etc. I see the farmer that throws away up to 37% of the food he produces. A figure that was completely unknown by the retailer. But by bringing them together, exploring the process, and looking for solutions together, we will reach stronger supply chains. Based on much more equality than what we have today.
Those connections will lead to respect. For food, for the people for the planet.
Let’s see the power of food. Food is emotion. Food is a language in itself. One that connects all of us.
Let us all take our responsibility and put food higher on the agenda. Where people deserve it to be. We have to stand up. Stand up for our right to healthy food. Let us make that happen.
Ambassador Katrien Verbeke – Let us
Intervention at the Forum For Agriculture