Nobel Week Dialogue 2016: The Future of Food

Nobel Week Dialogue: Future of Food (Photo: Pär Björnson)

This past week was the Nobel Week 2016 in Stockholm, Sweden and this years Nobel Week Dialogue conference was about the future of food — a subject that could not be more relevant today. As I am currently in the US I could not attend the conference in person, but I did however watch the live stream of the dialogues and presentations, and my colleague Pär Björnson was in attendance. I had to settle with only watching the conference via live streaming, but it was interesting nonetheless. I would like to share some takeaways.

There were many great points made by the speakers and panelists that I will try to restate. To begin with, I would like to state that my biggest conclusion from the conference was that we can in fact change the climate in the way we consume food. This might sound abstract, but makes sense if you give it a little thought. We eat food every day. Where does it come from? What are we eating? How is it produced? These are questions most people don’t ask themselves on a regular basis.

Marion Nestle, professor in nutrition, food studies and public health at NYU, had some very sobering points regarding how we should focus on eating healthy food. She claimed that we should love and enjoy food and not be pulled into the trend of believing that food is bad for you and that eating is something that is taboo. I totally agree with this; we should enjoy what we eat. Eating is something that we do every single day, after all. So why not enjoy it? She stressed the point that people should eat healthy food. And if healthy food is not available, then demand it. It is very simple: if the demand for healthier and sustainable food exists then the supply will come. Producers and manufacturer supply the market with what is in demand. Especially for people living in the west, where money (usually) is not an issue — we have the finances to consume healthy food. She claimed that in other places of the world consuming healthy food is an socioeconomic issue. During a panel discussion Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, 1995 Nobel prize winner in physiology and medicine also made a good note of saying that food is too cheap today. Our economy has focused on producing large amounts of cheap food instead of quality food. In order to get quality food we must be willing to pay more for it. She came with the example of dairy farmers in Germany not breaking even on the milk they sell because of the competition and pressure to keep prices as low as possible. This is not economically sustainable.

Another panelist who impressed me a lot was the Vice Coordinator of Food and Nutrition at the Ministry of Health in Brazil, Eduardo Nilson. Brazil has made the shift to serve food in schools that is 30% supplied by local and small farms. This is very impressive, not only from a sustainability standpoint but also an economical and public health point of view. It supports the local economy and greatly decreases the amount of miles food needs to travel before it reaches the table.

One to me surprising point made by Peter Tyedmers, professor of ecological economics, was that food does not necessarily have to be fresh all the time. We have become reliant on airfreight to get produce at its prime because our appetite of fresh produce. He instead made the case for freezing more food and preserving its natural state. Someone in the audience raised the objection that many people in today's society do not have the time to preserve food in these ways, to which his response simply was that it could be done at the producers end and not leave it up to the end consumer to do it. A lot of food is being wasted every day because of its short shelf-life. If we instead did not insist of having fresh produce as often, some of this yield would be preserved and the waste would decrease. This was an interesting point which never occurred to me before.

I was also happy to see Caleb Harper attending the conference and presenting his project OpenAg. I’ve been following this project ever since I saw his Ted Talk about it. He is challenging the traditional notion of what farming is. Some might think that what he is doing (and vertical farming in general) is not natural. I would like to argue that farming in any manner is not natural. To many this might seem outrageous. But if you give it a second thought it makes a lot of sense. Farming isn’t natural. Farming is an attempt to bend nature to our will. It doesn’t matter if it is being done in soil on a field or indoors in a laboratory. Looking towards the future, vertical and indoor farming is seeming like a increasingly better solution of solving the problems of food deserts and growing populations around the world.

In conclusion I would like to say that this years Nobel Week Dialogue was very interesting and brought many important issues to light. I would have liked to see some more discussion regarding our ever increasing habit of meat consumption, although this was touched upon. The meat industry, mainly referring to the production and consumption of beef, is the largest strain on the climate out of any of the agricultural practices today — thus making it the most important from an environmental and sustainability standpoint. That being said, at least we are becoming conscious enough to understand that what we eat is one of the most important questions raised when looking towards the future. The Future of Food conference has been proof of this, and I am glad to see that a serious dialogue is being conducted in the world over.

Were you at the conference and have any good points that you think I missed out on? Please don’t hesitate to leave a comment!