Sex, Food & Our Shared Environment

“What sex is to interpersonal relationships, eating is to the human-environment relationship. Treating our relationship with food as a series of one-off sensual encounters is like having random sex with a blindfold on: it may be fun, but it is also full of nasty surprises.” — David Waltner-Toews, in Food, Sex and Salmonella

I grew up envying the fluffy white store-bought bread in my school-mates’ lunches, while I chewed on my mom’s grainy, wholesome, home made bread. In retrospect, I am lucky to have had as much insight as I did into what ingredients were in my food, how it was prepared, and by virtue of observing the hard work that went into it, respect for the process that goes into most prepared foods we take for granted.

My mom still makes her own bread, and now has her own small farm where she raises chickens and grows produce for local restaurants and farmers’ markets; it was there that I picked up and read David Waltner-Toews’ book Food, Sex and Salmonella. It was a ‘lightbulb’ moment.

April 7 was World Health Day, an annual event by the World Health Organization (WHO), on the anniversary of its founding. The theme for World Health Day 2015 was Food Safety. WHO writes: “Safe food is distinct from food security. Food safety is an area of public health action to protect consumers from the risks of food poisoning and foodborne diseases. Unsafe food can lead to a range of health problems: diarrhoeal disease, viral disease (the first Ebola cases were linked to contaminated bush meat); reproductive and developmental problems, cancers. Food safety is thus a prerequisite for food security.”

Flawed approaches to food risk management

My ‘lightbulb’ moment at the farm was about risk management in food systems. Waltner-Toews writes elegantly about the way that North American regulators have taken a flawed approach to risk management. Ever stricter regulations around food processing, in particular for meats, have made small-scale production unprofitable, because of the level of investment required for specialized equipment, licenses, and inspections. Local butchers and small farm producers have closed, or submitted to selling or shipping their animals to ever-larger packing operations. The regulations tacitly equate capital intensity with food safety. Unfortunately, the reality is that this approach ties all the threads of a formerly diverse food system into a single point where catastrophic failure can occur. The absolute number of illnesses caused, on average, from a single failure in processing or inspection has risen dramatically. Whereas dozens or hundreds of people could be affected by an outbreak of listeria or e. coli from a small processor, failures by major packers, albeit less common, affect thousands, or tens of thousands of people before public health authorities can get ahead of the problem.

Naturally, the same regulation mentality proposes ever more stringent and capital-intensive approaches to recording, tagging, and tracking every unit of processed food, so that it can travel the complex web of the global supply chain and be recalled at a moment’s notice. This approach makes sense in some commodity markets, especially seafood, where labour and environmental abuses are endemic, and a strict system of supply-chain custody is required to make the supply chain transparent and accountable. But for so many other foods, my revelation was that local-scale, decentralized food systems might simply create food that is safer to eat, simply by virtue of the food travelling less and going through fewer hands from farm to fork. I knew many reasons to buy and support local food, but systemic food safety risk hadn’t previously been on my list and quickly jumped to the top.

Humans are not particularly adept at estimating the relative risks of different policy options. We are easily swayed by risks that are immediate and relatable (like vomiting from bad food), but less likely to take action on longer-term or systemic risks (like a regulatory regime that may or may not prevent illness). For this reason, it’s important that food safety and risk mitigation is ‘baked in’ to the food system, and not something that relies extensively on consumer choice, understanding labels, following recall announcements, or other compensating measures at the end of an assembly line.

This year is also the UN International Year of Soils. Soil is a good metaphor for risk management. The massive, centralized food processing businesses are like the nutrient-poor soils of industrial monoculture farming—“efficient” at scale, but constant applications of herbicides/fertilizers/regulations are required to keep out competitors. Local-scale businesses, and local food economies, are like healthy living soils—resilient to system shocks, and a rich growth medium for millions of microorganisms.

My takeaway thought is that any food business that considers food safety ought also to consider food security and systemic risk in its strategy regarding sustainability and human health. This can be effectively achieved through a materiality analysis, as described in our recent post Strategy On Purpose.

Garth Yule is an Engagement Manager with Junxion. He supports strategy consulting work for a variety of Junxion clients, and specialises in impact evaluation and reporting projects for social ventures.

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