The Risk-Monger


When speaking on food issues, I sometimes poll participants with questions like how many 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 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).

Organic hypocrisy

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 organics 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, the organics 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 organics, thus undesirable). The problem 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 organics 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 organics 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 organics, 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 industry consultants. Rather, the debate is about telling the truth, accepting the realities and not trying to impose your lifestyle of other less fortunate individuals.

So my message to the organics 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.

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