Lifestyles have changed but our biology has not

By the end of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution brought many changes in the relation between humans and nature, and between humans and their nature. The changes continued and amplified after World War II with the rise of the so-called consumption society in developed countries. I say so-called because the economic model is not so much about consumption as it is about buying more goods all the time, while consuming them is secondary. In my opinion, the consumption society should be called the shopping society, as the latter term would describe its purpose more accurately.

The change of economic model has been accompanied with changes of lifestyle, both at home as at work. The level of physical activity has dropped in many jobs and now a lot of workers spend hours daily sitting. With TV and computers, the same trend has happened at home, especially with more and more housing units in urban centers without yards. Even though, many people try to practice some physical activity, there is a sharp contrast with life as it used to be. Nothing is perfect and progress also has its shortcomings.

If our societies have evolved amazingly quickly over the past several decades, our biology has not. Our metabolism, our physiology and our biochemistry are very much the same as they were tens of thousands of years ago, even as before agriculture appeared in human societies. The contrasts with today are many.

By then, food was scarce and humans had to travel long distances and put a lot of physical activity to find something to eat. Today, food is plentiful and all it takes is to sit in your car to drive to the supermarket, which involved little physical exercise, and with online deliveries, the physical activity is even reduced to zero. The former hunter will now turn into a larva.

By then, there would be days without food and if the human organism could survive, it is because it has the ability to store reserves in the body from times of abundance to be used when the hunters and gatherers would come back empty-handed. Today, many people do not even know hunger at all. The easy availability of food exceeds the nutritional needs and what is eaten but not burnt ends up being metabolised into body fat. The old biology does what it is supposed to do, as one of its key roles is to deal with periods of food shortages. In the developed world, people consume on average about twice as many calories, twice as much protein and fats as they actually need. Since that is on average, you can imagine the multiple for some people! The excess portion does not disappear. It is transformed into fat reserves. I like to say that if you eat twice as much as you should, it should not be a surprise to end up twice as big as you should be. Joke aside, it is actually a good thing that animals store food reserves as fat and not as starch as plants do. Reason for that is the calorie density of starch versus fat: 4 calories per gram for starch versus 9 calories per gram of fat. In other words, if you have an excess weight of 10 pounds, it would be 22.5 pounds of starch, so more than twice the burden. Plants do not move, so it is not much of an impediment, but if you need to run away from a predator, an additional 12.5 pounds would make you an even easier prey.

Another difference between modern foods and the old biology is that our bodies have evolved to eat what I would call primary foods; some might want to call them primitive foods even. My point is that our biology is actually rather effective in extracting nutrients from rough foods. A side effect of processing foods is that it makes nutrients more easily accessible, because the processing often breaks physical barriers to the nutrients. As the nutrients are easier to access and our biology is eager to get them, it is only logical that processed foods are metabolised differently and faster than primary foods, thus in fact increasing their nutritional density, which results in more excess nutrients ready to be sent to the fat tissue.

A lot of the issues about the skyrocketing statistics of obesity, overweight, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and other food-related ailments find their origin in the fact that our lifestyles have changed while our biology has not. Food availability has changed. Foods have changed. Agricultural methods have changed. Economic models have changed. Diets have changed. Level of physical activity has changed. They all contribute to an imbalance between consumption and needs, which results to food-related problems. This is why, it is more important than ever to make education about food, agriculture and nutrition mandatory in schools. If we consider that education is the basis for better lives, then there is no argument why these topics should not be life basics for all children and adults alike!

Also considering the cost of health issues related to food, I bet you that education about food, agriculture and nutrition would pay off for individuals, insurance companies and governments alike.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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The Locavore’s Dilemma

Here is a third popular article from my Food Futurist website, that is actually used in schools curriculum in the USA:

There is a growing trend, or at least a growing noise in favour of eating locally produced food. The “locavores” as they are called, claim that 100-mile food is the way to a more sustainable agriculture and consumption. Is this approach realistic and could it be the model for the future?

This movement is rather popular here in Vancouver, British Columbia. The laid-back residents who support the local food paradigm certainly love their cup of coffee and their beer. Wait a minute! There is no coffee plantation anywhere around here. There is not much barley produced around Vancouver, either. Life should be possible without these two beverages, should not it? The disappearance of coffee –and tea- from our households will make the lack of sugar beets less painful. This is good because sugar beets are not produced in the region. At least, there is no shortage of water.

But this is not all. There is no cocoa plantation around here, and believe me, there are many people who are addicted to chocolate. British Columbia does not produce citrus or other warm climate fruit. If we are to become locavores, we must say goodbye to orange juice, to lemons, to bananas. Even the so popular sushi must disappear because of the lack of rice. There are no rice fields in this area, and neither are there wheat fields. The Asian population certainly would have a hard time eliminating rice from their diet. The lack of wheat means no flour; and no flour means no bread, no pastries, and no cookies. The carbohydrate supply is going to be tough. If we must consume local, our lifestyle is going to change dramatically. Potatoes and cabbage is the way of the future. But before going all local food, the local locavores must realize that British Columbia produces only 48% of all the food its inhabitants consume. One out of two locavores would have to starve. Going exclusively local would also affect deeply the source of animal protein. Most of the animal feed is made of ingredients that come for much farther than 100 miles. The chickens and eggs would become less available. Farmed salmon, BC’s largest agricultural export could not use the type of feed they currently use, as fishmeal and fish oil come from Peru and vegetal oil comes from farms located far away. There would go many jobs with very little alternatives. If we look beyond food, other agricultural products such as cotton and wool would not be an option anymore. Cars would disappear, because the main component of tires, rubber, is not produced under this climate. The 100-mile rule will solve traffic problems. If local consumption is the rule for food, should not it be the rule for everything as well? China would probably have different views about this. Not only would their manufacturing collapse, but also if they have to produce food within 100 miles of the consumer, they would have to give up importing agricultural commodities. For them, a true locavore system would mean famine. The same would be true here in British Columbia. When people are hungry, they are not so picky about the distance from the producing farm.

The problem with concepts such as local consumption is that the basic idea has some value, but the idea quickly evolves into an ideology, and ideologies tend to make their followers stop thinking pragmatically. Today, the idea of eating locally in a place like Vancouver is possible because supply easily meets demand, thanks to the 3,000-mile foods. This is ironical. If the distance to market has to be within 100 miles, farmers in low population density areas, such as many regions of North America, South America and Central Europe, would have a different type of problem. They would produce an abundance of food, but because there are not enough people to consume it locally, the law of supply and demand tells us that the price of agricultural commodities would plummet, food would stay in storage and farmers would go out of business, while people in China, and in British Columbia, would suffer hunger. Clearly, the 100-mile diet needs some amendments.

Intuitively, it sounds logical that locally produced food has a lower carbon footprint than food that comes from 2,000 to 10,000 miles away. However, this is only partly true. The mean of transportation affects the carbon footprint. The environmental impact of transport is much higher for road transport than it is for rail transport, which is also higher than water transport. The type of transport also depends on the type of commodity brought to market. Perishables need to reach consumers as quickly as possible for shelf life reasons, while dry goods, such as for instance grains and oilseeds do not face the same kind of deadline. The quality of the logistics is also crucial to reduce the carbon footprint. A fully loaded truck is much more efficient than a local truck dropping small quantities in many places, thus driving around most of the time with empty space in the trailer.

The emphasis should not be so much on local as it should be about the search for efficient and low environmental impact. More than the distance from the farm to the consumer, it would be more useful to provide consumers with information about the actual carbon footprint of the products they buy. They would have the possibility to make the right choices. Retailers, too, would be able to make decisions about their sourcing strategies. Clean products and clean producers need to be rewarded for doing a good job. Here in Vancouver, local food products are more expensive than similar offerings from California, Mexico, Ecuador or Chile. How do you convince families with a tight budget to spend more for local products that look pretty much the same? This problem needs to be addressed. Currently, farmers markets are much about marketing. They sell the experience as much as their production methods. Only a wealthy minority can afford to buy on these markets. The prices are not based on production costs plus farmers income. They are as high as possible, because the farmers can ask these prices. The wealthy city dwellers are willing to pay a substantial premium above what they can buy from the local supermarket. In this relation farmer-consumer, the price bargaining does not take place. If these farmers were to try to sell to a grocery retail chain, they would never get the prices they get from the consumers who will not haggle about the price. This is why more farmers try to sell directly to consumers: they make more money that way. However, this might change in the future. A number of retailers are working towards offering “farmers market” products into their store. This already makes market farmers nervous.

Is local production for local markets the way of the future? My answer is that it partly will be and it partly will not. I do expect a shift of the location of production for perishables. Consumer habits will change, too. In the West, consumers have been spoiled. They can eat anything from anywhere at any time of the year. This luxury probably will not be affordable for long anymore. The superfluous will naturally be eliminated.

As the economics of energy, and therefore of food, will change, producers will increasingly locate their operations closer to cities; and even inside cities. Urban farming is a growing activity. Although it started mostly in poor neighbourhoods as a way of having a small patch of land for personal consumption, more sophisticated and efficient systems are being developed. My expectation is that production, and consumption, of vegetables and fragile fruit (for instance strawberries) will gradually become more integrated in the urban landscape than they are now. I also think that we will see animal productions, such as fresh dairy, poultry meat and eggs relocate closer to consumer markets. An interesting development is aquaponics, the combination of greenhouse produce with fish production in tanks. The production of non-perishables will not relocate. It does not have to. What will probably change is the transportation infrastructure in many areas where these commodities are produced.  This is good news for coffee drinkers and chocolate addicts. After all, transport of commodities over long distance is not just the result of cheap oil. The Silk Road and the spice trade by the Dutch took place before mankind even knew about oil. Trade has always been a force of progress for humanity. It helps an increasing number of people to have access to goods that make their lives better. The rules of trade may not always be fair, but like all human activities, it is a work in progress. Limiting our food supply to 100 miles would be a regression. Subsistence agriculture has not demonstrated that it could feed the world. Most of the people suffering of hunger live in subsistence agriculture areas.

(This topic is one of the many that are presented and discussed in my second book, We Will reap What We Sow)

Copyright 2010 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Nutrition basics should be taught in school

Here is one of the articles (from 2009) from my other website, The Food Futurist, that motivated me to create this website:

When food costs twice!

A recent report showed that the annual medical cost of obesity reached $147 billion (see article). On the other hand the contribution of the meat and poultry industry in the US is $832 billion annually. Therefore, we can expect ongoing arguments between economic interest and health care costs for a while. The simple fact is that too many Americans do not eat a properly balanced diet and that should change.

The most efficient way to improve eating habits is by understanding nutrition and educating children at an early age about health and food, and about diseases caused by either unbalance or excess. Food safety is not only about bacteria or residues, but also about handling food properly and eating right.

People know actually very little about proper nutrition. The average person may have some ideas about how many calories he/she needs on a daily basis, but it hardly goes much further than that. Only few people know how many grams of protein they should consume on a daily basis. They know even less how many grams of fat they need. When it comes to carbohydrates, the situation is just as confused and confusing. Most people do not even know how the different groups of carbs (starch, sugars and fibers) are metabolised and what ratio between them they should consume. The result is a diet that has negative long-term effects.

If the FAO estimates the daily calorie needs at 1,800 for an average human being, the averages in developed countries are much higher, reaching about 3,500 on average for Western countries and even 3,800 in the US. The same conclusion is true for protein and other nutritional elements. It should be no surprise then that when people eat twice as much as they should, they get twice as big as they should, too. The reality is that in developed countries, people do not eat what they need, but they eat what they want. And they want too much.

Balanced nutrition is not difficult to understand, but someone needs to teach it. As parents have about as little knowledge and understanding as their kids do, schools would be quite well inspired to put nutrition on their curriculum. After all, schools are the places where future generations are educated to do the right things in the future, or at least it should be part of their mandate. Helping people eating right is part of creating healthy and prosperous societies. Sick societies will not be leaders. Of course, including nutrition in the curriculum is not enough for schools. They must also provide foods and drinks that contribute to healthy eating. Offering kids access to junk foods and junk drinks in vending machines may generate revenue for schools, but it works against helping kids to have a healthy diet. If they have the choice, kids will not spend their lunch money on water and broccoli. The responsible adults in charge must help them make the right choices. Offering treats is not to schools to decide, but only to the parents.

Copyright 2009 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.