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Take the Train to Food Town

Derrick Mead4 min read

Fashion, I mean garments, is not fashionable anymore. We just don’t care that much about it. On the opposite people are speaking all the time about food, sharing photos, exchanging recipes and good places to buy products… chefs are the new rockstars. The International Expo in Milano was about ‘feeding the future.’ Food is really a trending topic.

Cecile Poignant,

Food is huge right now. Our food systems, too, are huge, and hugely productive. Just like the garment industry, they’re also unsustainable: environmentally, socially and economically speaking. Surpluses have proven to be more problem than solution when it comes to our health, individually and as communities. The problems don’t stop there–climate change is bearing down on breadbaskets worldwide, we’re poisoning the bees nearly all our food depends on and on, and on. What to do?

Sharpen our design knives

At Design Observer’s first Taste Symposium last month, Union of Concerned Scientists’ director Dr. Ricardo Salavar sketched the scale of the world’s food systems’ problems. Salavar framed unfairness, waste and looming environmental catastrophe as a vast field of opportunity for designers, activists and entrepreneurs. But that doesn’t mean the future is going to be all peaches and cream. Bottom line? The questions many Americans and Europeans complain about having to ask themselves at mealtimes, including What am I in the mood for? or How much time do I have, and how much money would I like to spend? are actually remarkable luxuries. More bad news: the developed world’s food choices are predicated on a tremendous exhaust of waste and a highly imbalanced social power structure, and the entire system is beginning to show the strain. Challenges like these–including, but not limited to, full-blown human health and environmental crises–necessitate change.

Not just ‘the past, only more so’

An emergent theme of the early 21st century is the trend of sifting back through the culture and wisdom we threw out during the 20th. From good-tasting food that’s also nutritious, to the sterling customer service that frequently delivered it, a lot of extremely desirable babies went out with bathwater, over the last 60 or so years. There’s a tremendous amount of good stuff in our history when it comes to food, in fact, and we absolutely can and should get back to the way things were, in many respects–see the inimitable Michael Pollan’s Cooked series on Netflix for a highly digestible summary of why artisanal and small batch tend to taste better.

In the US, we have scale on our side, when it comes to making changes. The food we choose consumes around 10% of our disposable income (which, it bears mentioning, is far less than in just about every other country on Earth.) That means the numbers are huge, and our everyday choices can and do drive big, fast changes in the food marketplace. Think of how quickly restaurants come and go, for example, or how often new products appear at your grocery store. We can change our food system just by spending differently, in other words, while for products like durable goods, simply buying our way to far-reaching solutions may not be possible, any longer. So support your local farmer, and for goodness sake, buy organic as often as possible–our lives could very well depend on it. With celebrity chefs and diet-as-lifestyle ascendent, the cultural attention train is in the station right now, as Cecile Poignant points out, above–we all just have to get on board.

Say goodbye to (some) food as we know it

The future demands more than just reworking the past, however. We must create new food systems that nourish our planet as well as our bodies. The products of those new systems will not necessarily look or taste like the food of yesterday or today; the things we eat will likely come from closer (in our own yards or even kitchens) and further away (the middle of the world’s oceans, for example.) Our food will almost certainly be grown indoors and out, in the air, and underwater as well as on land. We may have to embrace food we’re currently sketched out by, including alternative proteins, which sounds nicer than cricket flour, and lab-grown meat, which can’t be made to sound nice but just might be delicious (hot dogs and pulled pork, I’m looking at you.) Cultural mores will have to change, too, from eating to be polite to the entire concept of all you can eat.

Design is hungry for all these challenges, and always saves room for more. We’d never have gotten to where we are today without a healthy appetite for change.

Further Perspectives