More and more, when we eat, we look for food that meets a certain profile: what we might call, following the science writer Jo Robinson, “eating on the wild side.” In a previous generation, savvy consumers looked for food produced by human intervention through modern science, food that was hygienic, safe, predictable, and nutritionally fortified.
Unfortunately, though science has brought us enormous improvements in food safety and productivity, we have come to learn that human intervention does not always improve the health or quality of our food. Today, specialty and super-premium foods tout not the advanced processes used to manufacture them but their closeness to nature. Whether it’s grass-fed beef, non-GMO grains, wild-fermented beer, or heirloom tomatoes, when we buy for high quality, we buy foods that show fewer traces of human intervention, that seem closer to nature.
For many consumers, this shift is motivated by a distrust of science and modern technology. Such a reflex can be exaggerated and ignorant, without question, and food industry professionals often find it frustrating. However, more reflective approaches can acknowledge the benefits of some food technology while also drawing on science that highlights some of the problems with our food supply chain. Jo Robinson’s book, referenced above, shows how nutrient density in our food has suffered at the source because modern farming and food preferences have selected for less-nutritious varieties. More recently, Charles Massy’s magisterial book Call of the Reed Warbler demonstrates how short-sighted farming practices can damage the health of the land, the water, and the climate as well as the end consumer.
Soil to Store
To eat well and promote health, we need a food system that promotes health from the very start and for all: not only from seed to plate but also from soil to store. This is not an argument for promoting the environment or the consumer at the expense of the farmer or the food company, however. A truly healthy food system would encourage health for all, and that includes providing a means for farmers and food makers to earn a reasonable living. A better supply chain means one that helps farmers and food companies meet the urgent demand to feed a growing planet, while using our new knowledge of nutrient density and sustainable system health to promote better food for all.
For too long, the discussion around the food system has revolved around a loaded, often fallacious black-and-white opposition: big food companies with unhealthy, unsustainable foods that everyone can access versus startups and hippies with healthy foods available only to a certain niche. Profit versus idealism. “Feeding the world” versus nourishing it.
Supply Chain Improvements
If that story were ever true, recent developments have shown it is no longer. Grass-fed meat purveyor Niman Ranch was acquired by vertically integrated Perdue Farms in 2015, and according to executives from both companies it’s Perdue that has changed, adopting more sustainable and animal-welfare-based practices, rather than Niman having compromised its values. Our partner Bunge, one of the world’s largest ingredient companies, recently launched a non-GMO corn line—a launch we were proud to assist with—allowing major brands to create non-GMO corn products for the first time. In our time at IFT, we’ve met folks from innovative companies like Healthy Food Ingredients, focused on connecting food manufacturers and brands to better supply chains starting at the source. In reality, a healthy food supply chain requires financially healthy brands and a smoothly functioning supply chain. It is vital that we not merely criticize the mistakes of the past but promote better systems for the future at all levels of the food industry.
At MarketPlace, we’re pleased to do our small part in making those connections. Have a healthy ingredient to promote? We can help. Looking to upgrade your supply chain with better connections to healthy ingredients or nutrient-dense foods? We can help there too. Regardless, if you share our passion for making the food system a healthier place from soil to store, let’s talk.