Can corporations ever fix the food system?

20th Jun 19 by Daniel Jones

Reflections on the EAT Forum

Last week I was in Stockholm for the EAT Forum, an annual get-together that brings “the brightest minds in food” to discuss and drive, the transformation of our food system.

EAT are doing some daring things. They are doing some good things too. They have done fantastic work underscoring (several times and in bold) that the science is clear: our food system is broken; our diets are unsustainable. EAT has also been hugely influential in rocketing “the food system” up the global policy agenda, helping broaden the conversation away from the tired myths dominating talk about food security.
Earlier this year EAT published guidelines for a diet that would be better for both people and the planet. It caused a social media ruckus, but someone needed to create that splash, and it will be the ripples created that really matter. There is also, perhaps, an important role for an organisation like EAT that is so willing to engage with all-comers, be that Nestle, Impossible, Kellogg’s, Mars or Danone. If there is a need for a Bono of the global food system, EAT’s founder, Gunhild Stordalen is probably the leading candidate .

But at the risk of sounding like the Judea People’s Front squabbling with the People’s Front of Judea… there are some deeper issues with EAT’s model that worry many of us working at the confluence of food, environment and nutrition.

The forum brought my concerns to the surface. At times I felt like I was at a product launch in Silicon Valley, dripping with hubris, full of glitz. It hurt to see “Greta from Stockholm” and Extinction Rebellion slickly regurgitated in a heartstring tugging promotional trailer. But most disturbingly, despite the sheer terror of the science and the enormity of the challenge, everyone attending seemed on the same page about the solution. In fact, the consensus at the EAT Forum was stifling. There was barely a disagreement on a single panel. Even a panel called “The Beef with Beef” appeared, well, to lack a good meaty argument. Perhaps everyone else is just a better guest than I am?

The consensus was, essentially, this: Technology, innovation, marketing and science-based targets are going to save the world. They provide the tools to render complex systems and problems into neat solutions where everyone wins. Danone will begin to fairly reward farmers, and all will be well. TGI Friday’s will serve plant-based burgers. Mark’s and Spencer’s laudable sustainability policy will counterbalance the fact that they exist to sell plastic wrapped almonds and farmed salmon sushi to middle class consumers at train stations. What is more all this will happen without regulation, without government and, seemingly, without politics.

As one panellist put it, in a rare glimpse of the tensions bubbling beneath the surface, “Make no mistake, the food industry is fighting tooth and nail to protect its profits at the expense of people and the planet”. To what extent is EAT entangled in this fight? Can the architects of our dysfunctional food system really save us? We might all agree on the need for a green food system within planetary boundaries, but how we get there and what that looks like when we do really matters. A food system remade in the image of our existing system, only with added ‘sustainable intensification’ and lab-grown meat won’t answer pressing questions of social justice, local prosperity and food citizenship.
Food is always political and the at the EAT Forum the microphone was too often handed to powerful, corporate voices. In her opening address EAT’s founder, Gunhild Stordalen said: “We’ve listened to smallholder farmers and ranch owners, entrepreneurs, investors, mayors, chefs and kids on strike! And now, here in Stockholm, we want to hear from you!”. So where were the farmers? The food poverty campaigners? The fishermen and women? The school cooks?

My challenge to EAT is to use your platform to amplify more of these voices, more of the time. Yes, this will unnerve some of your bigger corporate backers. But as a well-known American army general apparently used to say, “If everyone is thinking alike, then someone isn’t thinking”. On an issue as sensitive, as emotional, as political and as vital, as food – if we all thought alike, I too would be worried.

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