Even Though Food Gets an 'F' for 2017, There's a Reason for Optimism

First, the good news about the year past and the years ahead: Quartz describes 2017 as an almost banner year of good news on the environment and health fronts. Indeed, the mag counts 99 cool breakthroughs. Huffington Post lists four.

Now the bad news: Only two cases made the list for banner-worthy progress on a matter that is strictly of, by, and for food—something to do with more effective health promotion or disease prevention measures or better food standards and habits.

First, sales of sugar water or pop went down. That’s likely the result of new taxes on sugar, and a growing campaign against the refined and harmful sweetener. Second, extreme hunger declined. This year, the average malnourished person consumed 88 calories a day less than absolutely necessary. That’s an improvement from 20 years ago when the average was 155 calories a day below essential minimums.

The best we can say about these two good news stories is that they make the best of a bad thing. Of 99 good news items in 2017, the only two food items went from worse to bad, instead of bad to worse.

Bitter Medicine

I can’t tell you what bitter medicine this is for me. Since 1995, when I co-wrote Get a Life! about what I hoped would be the new green economy, I highlighted positive and direct actions that citizens can take on their own initiative. That potential became the center of my food advocacy when I started at the Toronto Food Policy Council five years later.

Jack Layton, my co-worker on these issues, used the phrase “from opposition to proposition.” My young mentor, Michael Sacco of ChocoSol Traders, uses the phrase “from activism to actionism”—where actionism represents “creating the change you want to see.” And I came to describe our revolutionary approach to rolling up our sleeves and getting down to work as “solutionary.”

People have the power and need to take their power to grow and prepare more of their food, buy more local foods, switch to healthier and more sustainable diets.

Solutionary approaches, in my mind, came with a lot of icing on the cake that I thought would become strong selling points for a food transformation.

Positive changes would have a positive impact on the economy, community and environment, I argued then and still do today. I also believed that food was better suited to people-centered, bottom-up initiatives than any other sector of the economy or daily life. There is no absolute need for government programs or major investments to make positive changes in food habits the norm. I thought this was particularly important in the era of neo-liberalism when governments weren’t coming through with many meaningful programs challenging the vested interests on the health and environment fronts.

I still believe in "solutionary" approaches, but I now have to concede that food is one tough issue to move in the right direction. There are more forceful barriers than I first imagined, and more tricky tripwires.There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip, my mother warned me whenever my enthusiasm was too boyish. And now I see there’s many a tripwire between a vague wish to do the right thing and the preconditions and ability to do the right thing.

Three Reasons Why Food Got Stalled

There are three reasons why food got stuck with an F grade on the progress report for 2017.

1. Food movement proposals for change are truly disruptive innovations, not the relatively simple creative destructions—two distinct kinds of change that are not be confused with one another.

A disruptive innovation, as explained by Clayton Christenson, features a change that overturned a powerful group of insiders who had it made in the shade—as when desktop computers snuck up on IBM and dirt bikes snuck up on Harley Davidson. By comparison, creative destruction, as explained by Joseph Schumpeter, unleashed hurricane-force changes by entrepreneurs who both destroyed and created entire swaths of an economy—as when the Internet upended conventional main street and box store retailers.

Creative destruction is actually easier to pull off because it forges new paths and pushes heroically against an open door. Now for something completely different.

By contrast, disruptive innovators push up against powerful established groups who resist change. Heads of the department or ministry of agriculture fear losing out if health, environment and food are put together under a new department or ministry, to give one among scores of examples.

Just as the established forces of IBM and Harley Davidson successfully hung on to power until their ships almost went down, so it is with the food establishment. They have literally billions to fight with, and hundreds of billions to fight for.

2. There is what Mancur Olson called the collective action problem. Contrary to the propaganda about "the consumer is king," food producers are a tightly-knit group of ten food monopolies.

Their owners and managers find it fairly easy to develop a common list of priorities and a pointed strategy for government influence. By contrast, consumers easily divide into hundreds of grouplets with little in common and little in the way of political resources.

No-one has yet figured out how to turn consumers or eaters into a powerful group that speaks with a unified voice or voices.

3. Food prices are structured to incentivize companies with the lowest social, environmental and health ethics.

Big Food got big by externalizing its full costs to the public or the environment—as when companies sell food in plastic packages; the taxpayers pay for the recycling, and the environment pays for the plastics and global warming that are killing ocean life.

Small Food can’t succeed by virtue of the positive externalities it creates—such as healthier environments, more localized employment and healthier outcomes in terms of nutrition. So the sticker price on Small Food products and services is always more expensive, and Big Food products and services always look cheaper at the sticker price level. This isn’t because "the market decides." To the contrary, an entirely political method of setting prices and assigning costs favors one side, Big Food. (For a great intro to the price of food, see the high-profile TVO interview with two leading experts on the true cost of food.)

The good news buried in this is what inspires me. By making cities a strategic government sector to manage food, we bring food back to earth and down to earth, to a level where communities can decide their food sovereignty.

By building food policy councils as strategic tools to bring people together around common food needs (as expressed in a food charter, for example), we create an alternative to the concentrated power of Big Food.

Because I believe in cities and food policy councils, I remain optimistic about the future of food, despite the F grade it deserves for 2017.

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