“Cold?” “Mais, non, c’est comme d’habitutde”

Once again I have spent a good chunk of the last few months working away from the UK in the south of France and, in all that time, I reckon we have seen rain once. There have been some devastating forest fires near where I live and my department of Hérault is officially on a fire alert status of extreme. As a northern European it has made my Mediterranean French cycling friends laugh when we are up a mountain and they ask if I’m cold (it has plummeted to a chilly 19oC from the 35oC we started with and will return to!). “Cold?” “Mais, non, c’est comme d’habitutde”.

Except of, course, we Brits have also seen the UK baked in record temperatures, albeit not for months on end, but 30oC has been exceeded a good few times recently otherwise it has been raining almost non-stop – so I’m told. Of course that automatically means that over the last week or so there have been some “interesting” commentaries on global warming. Please don’t misunderstand me, this is a serious issue, and one which many of my colleagues at the University of Reading are and have been working to address as a matter of enormous urgency (http://www.walker.ac.uk ). From a feeding the world perspective alone, it has had a marked effect on food production, land management, water supplies and a whole myriad of other interconnected and equally important issues.

What I mean here are the “commentaries” that we, i.e. the general public and the popular press, that is the less well informed but equally strongly opinionated, make. My friend Alex told me that he had seen an article in the last day or two that said something along the lines of anyone under the age of 30 has seen it getting hotter year on year. Ah, yes, how I remember when I was small (in t’shoe box in t’middle o’ t’road) that even in the balmy Midlands we had snow in winter and bonfire night was always freezing, so he must be right. But then again, I also remember that the day I got married, which we calculated recently was 25 years ago this week, it was so stinking hot that we gave up on the photos and headed for the bar somewhat more quickly than our families were hoping for; now my French friends tell me that this record heatwave and drought that the French press have been reporting is just “une été normale”.

What worries me here, is how we decide on what we individually and collectively could or should do to mitigate disaster when memories are unreliable, commentaries are sensationalist and ever changing evidence turns us into disbelievers anyway. Except that all of these are inter-related and a cause and effect of each other. Of course evidence is ever-changing, what would be the point of continuing to look for an answer if we liked the one already had. If the evidence didn’t change we would stop believing just as quickly or worse, stop taking notice, because, well frankly, “we already knew that anyway”.

For me and my colleagues at the AFTP and the participants we nurture on our courses, addressing this beast of a conundrum sits at the heart of what we do. Our participants are food industry practitioners, they are all professional people who have the opportunity, chance, power, call it what you will, to profoundly affect the way we, the general public, eat. And this is why they come to us. Because they understand that they have this responsibility, but that the industry they work in is a business after all and one that the press will hound and we, the public, will vilify at the first opportunity. How often have we blamed the food industry for manufacturing rubbish, for adding too much salt, sugar, additives, for processing things too much. For our burgers containing too much fat, for being outraged that the fast food retailers and alcoholic drink companies sponsor sports events and for the supermarkets for selling the junk food cheaper than the good stuff? Yes, I’ve done it, so have you I’m sure. So I once threw this hand grenade into one of our seminar sessions. We had representatives from the whole food chain, literally farm to fork (actually farm to toilet if we are being honest) in the room and I asked them why they did it? “Because that’s what the customer wants” they all replied. “So?” I said, prodding the bear a bit more, “if you didn’t make it they wouldn’t buy it” and I sat back and watched the explosion.

Except like it or not, they have to make money to survive. If they didn’t they couldn’t make a difference anyway, and customers do vote with their feet – it has to be a joined up effort. It can’t just be a lone voice. Yes, I know it has to start somewhere, and doing nothing won’t make a difference, but until we find a way to tie together the conundrum of sensationalist reporting, dis-belief in changing evidence and false memories our individual efforts will not really change very much and the outcomes certainly won’t.

I’m going to close with a real event that one of our participants described during this discussion, but before I do I just want to explain why he was a participant and not a student and it’s got nothing to do with age. Our participants range from 20 something to 50 something. Some remember the days before Alex’s report that says it started to get hotter and some most definitely don’t. But they all join in on our courses. They don’t just study. We, the course developers, tutors and researchers learn from the participants as much as they learn from us. We learn how the industry works, what its constraints are, what its challenges and seemingly hopeless problems are. We learn how to teach its practitioners to draw on the knowledge they have to actually make a difference. And this closing “story”, which is true even if anonymised, shows how big a beast we have to tame if we want to address the massive effect of global warming and how to provide safe, secure, sustainable food to feed a healthy world.

The company in question was a fast food chain of restaurants. They knew that one of their products in particular was too high in fat. Unnecessarily so. Extra stuff had been added and the punters loved it. They couldn’t get enough of it. It was, in fact, selling like hot cakes. Except that didn’t really sit well with my participant who was of a senior enough position to affect a change within his organisation, which he did. They put on meal deals where the healthier stuff was cheaper, came to the table quicker, had BOGOFs etc etc and they plastered this all across the restaurant’s windows, nationwide. And what a marketing success this was. The restaurants were filling up, people were rushing in off the streets for these bargains. Then they looked at the menus and ordered their food – their rubbish food, not the bargains that had brought them in the door in the first place. The same junk they always chose. My participant’s business couldn’t give the healthier stuff away. Now I know that there will have been some that snapped it up, but my participant’s point was that we, the general public, the ones with a collective voice that could actually make a difference, could have provided the business case for a complete change of direction from an organisation able to influence others. Only we didn’t. Our memories were too short, so short in fact that they didn’t last from pavement to table.

But we won’t give up, and neither will the industry. We’ll find another way, we will continue to do the research that provides the evidence that something needs to be done but that research will include how to lengthen memories, increase understanding and improve the quality of food that we, the general public choose to buy. We will start with understanding and influencing consumer behaviour, risk analysis, and sustainable practices in the autumn follow with a whole suite of modules covering nutrition, manufacturing, safety, public perception through the spring and into the summer next year. We, the industry and academia, will work together to tame that beast that gives us such a short memory.

If you are interested in finding out more about how together we can benefit health and promote a responsible, profitable food industry then check out these resources:

https://www.aftp.co.uk/course

Barbara Mason 5th September 2016

Our partners

Our funder