On 18 March 2019, I was invited to speak at the European Food Summit in Ljubljana, Slovenia. My talk was entitled The Roast Beef Rebellion.
It was 2001. I was 11 years old. And I decided to become a vegetarian.
It wasn’t because I came from a family of hippies. I did it because I was concerned about the environment. I remember hearing about something called global warming and the impact that our choices have on the environment.
Now, I grew up in a small town and when you entered high school you had to take a home economics class to learn how to cook. I had heard a lot about the teacher. She had been teaching that class since who knows when – I think she had even taught my uncle. She was an English lady who, at that point, was well past retirement age.
The class started off with a unit about how to make proper English tea. As the weeks went on, we got more sophisticated – learning to make cookies, soups, etc. Then one day, we had to learn how to make a proper roast beef dinner. After hearing the news I marched up to the teacher and told her that I had absolutely no reason to learn such a recipe because I was a vegetarian.
I can recall the hush that fell over my fellow students. At first, the teacher had a look of complete shock on her face. Then she got really mad. She asked me: And just how do you think you will ever find a husband?
I was 11 years old!!! That was definitely not what I was thinking about.
I continued to tell her that I didn’t see the point in learning how to make that damn roast beef and then she sent me straight to the principle’s office.
I remember being quite mad at that time. But looking back on that moment in 2001 when I was just a kid, it makes me think a lot about why we resist change, and how transitions and cultural shifts can be difficult to handle.
This is the reason why I have dedicated my career to helping understand and facilitate processes of transition within the food system. It starts, in many ways, with understanding culture and traditions, and the values that are embedded deeply within them.
I think that most of you here today probably understand why we (those of us representing modern Western Diets) need to rethink the way we consume:
- Yes, we like to think that we are thinner than our American counterparts, but European waist sizes are growing too. Between 30-70% of European adults are overweight, and one in three European children is either overweight or obese.
- Over the past 100 years, our lifestyles have changed completely: we’re working much less with our bodies and more in front of screens. Our diets are no longer fit for the lifestyles we live.
- Although per kilo consumption of meat in the EU has decreased slightly in recent years, the average daily consumption of meat is quite high (approx. 98kg/year). One in three Europeans does not consume fruit and vegetables on a daily basis.
When it comes to major global environmental challenges like climate change and obesity, the food system presents a significant opportunity to ensure a better future for human-beings as well as the planet.
Let’s have a look at this diagram created by Project Drawdown. Here, we can see that by reducing the food that we throw away, and by increasing the volume of plants we eat and reducing the amount of meat, we can put a real dent in counteracting climate change. We should not underestimate this potential – we’re all a part of this.
So, what I want to do in the rest of this presentation is to share with you 10 of some of the most interesting trends and insights that are happening right now in Europe:
1. Wanted: New paradigms and mindsets: New paradigms and mindsets are needed in mainstream society. We can no longer afford to think in the same old ways. I think that this comic (below) pretty much sums it up. Our planet is on fire and the best thing that we can come up with it banning plastic straws!?! Is that all the most intelligent species on planet earth has to offer? The global challenges that we are facing call for a total rehaul of political, educational, economic systems, etc.
2. Education and skills that match 21st century needs: We’re stuck with many of the wicked problems that we face today because we simply don’t know any better. This is why re-examining education models will be such an important step towards understanding how we can move towards a more desirable and sustainable food future. Take for example Finland and Sweden where food education, along with free school meals, has been incorporated into the national curricula of primary and secondary schools. We need to dream bigger and start to imagine the skills that will be needed well into the future.
3. Hope just doesn’t cut it anymore: Greta Thunberg, now a Nobel Prize Nominee, told heads of state at the World Economic Summit that she doesn’t want their hope, she wants them to panic. While I don’t think that the best decisions are made in moments of panic, I do think that she is right to bring the urgency that climate change presents the world to the forefront. Now there are hundreds of thousands of young people worldwide voicing their fear for an unchecked future. My little roast beef rebellion was nothing compared to that of Greta Thunberg’s Schools Strikes for the Climate Movement. However, a lot has shifted since I was a teenager. Young urban Europeans are demanding more from their food. In the Nordic region, where I live now, 30% of millennials are either flexitarian, vegetarian or vegan. Similar trends are also being seen in other parts of Europe.
4. Less, but better is the new mantra: We’re starting to see new mantras within the food industry – less, but better quality. Just last week we saw Danish Crown, Denmark’s largest meat producer, and Arla, one of the world’s largest dairy cooperatives, announce that they will seek to become CO2 neutral in 2050. We also see more and more meat producers divesting from meat-based products and reinvesting their money elsewhere. At the same time, the science around dietary transformation has become much more robust. Take, for example, the EAT Lancet Commission’s recent report on the Planetary Diet. This (below) is what our plates should look like if we want to ensure better planetary and human health.
5. Food has become the new religion: As Europeans become less and less religious, we look for new ways to assert our values and ideologies. Food has become a religion in itself and our bodies are our temples. The dogmas of vegetarianism, veganism, reduceitarianism or flexitarianism brings meaning to our lives and creates new communities around what we choose to include and omit in our diets.
6. We’re reactivating forgotten food heritage: Are we losing our traditional European food cultures? Or are we just revisiting the past? Grandma’s sourdough bread has never been cooler – take for example, the sourdough hotel in Stockholm where residents of the neighbourhood could have their sourdough starters take care of while on vacation. Lentils and pulses have made their way back onto tables, after having been sideline by meat. New symbols of the food revival revolution include skin contact in wine production, kale and ugly vegetables. These foods – which were once just a normal part of food culture – have now gained celebrity status in the battle against unsustainable and undesirable food systems.
7. Thinking in systems will take us further: A food system is made up of many elements such as flows of resources and information, and stakeholders. We now see more and more governments of European nations igniting processes that bring different ministries together to speak about healthy and sustainable diets. Previously, the ministries of education, finance, agriculture and food, environment and health didn’t seem to have much in common, but new goals in the food system, such as addressing rising healthcare costs associated with unhealthy diets, are uniting them. It’s easy to demonise other players within the food system, especially when you have never had the opportunity to meet them, but if we want to solve complex challenges, we’ll need to invest in more collaborative processes.
8. There are absolutely no silver bullets: This is always the part where I am often asked to discuss edible insects and their role as ‘superfoods’. However, the 2000+ edible species of insects are just one of the many options of how we can add more diversity into our diets. Diversity – whether it be in an ecosystem or in a kitchen – will always win in the end.
9. We can create new food cultures: Culture – broadly defined as all we learn from others that endures for long enough to generate customs and traditions – shapes every aspect of our lives. Culture has allowed the human species to dominate the planet in an evolutionarily unique way. But just as any species evolves over time, so does culture. In the Nordic region, we have seen the emergence of a new food culture over the past 15 years. The introduction of the New Nordic Kitchen Manifesto is an example of how a new ideology can manifest itself in culture. The diagram below demonstrates how a dynamic new food culture has developed.
10: Europe does not exist in a vacuum: The European food system is nested within the global food system. The choices that we make every time that we engage with our food does have an effect on other parts of the planet. Due to the historic global dominance of European food culture, many people in other parts of the world are watching how we eat and aspire to do the same once they gain more disposable income. What kind of example do we want to set for the world?