Reasonable Doubts

Our manmade food system is broken. But if people built it, people can redesign it. Verena Bahlsen points to the silver lining by asking: What would the food system look like if we started over?

In 2015, I read an article in The New York Times on the history of flour. A full nine pages dedicated to a commodity so pervasive and yet so mundane that, in a lifetime of eating, I’d never once thought about it. Suddenly, the global flour market seemed like something out of a dystopian thriller in which a great industrial machine was turning nature’s screws, spitting out vast volumes of a cheap, perfectly white, everyday drug. The bread in my kitchen suddenly felt like a parody of itself.

The more I ask and read, the more I see our food system as a structure so woven into society that we cease to notice it. We forget that it’s entirely manmade, designed solely to produce high volumes of homogenous, cheap products. This system was constructed to democratize mass consumption and maximize output, but its long-term effects on our markets, culture, and environment were never considered.

As a result, scary things are happening. Our system isn't quite as balanced and self-renewing as that of nature. Two billion people are overweight, nearly one billion are starving. The imbalance is incomprehensible. The nutritional density of our food products has fallen by 50% over the past century, and the resultant physical and mental health effects are oozing into our every day. Perversely, the "developed" world we live in is overfed, yet undernourished.

We are relentlessly besieged, in a stream so continuous that it dulls our senses, with evidence that our planet and our health are deteriorating.

We feel the impact of our broken system, and so does the planet. Once I began digging into the amount of fish left in our oceans, the ticking time bomb that is our drinking water supply, or the long-term effects of white flour on human health, I began to feel that eating anything was hazardous, if not plainly irresponsible. Of course, these facts are nothing new – we are relentlessly besieged, in a stream so continuous that it dulls our senses, with evidence that our planet and our health are deteriorating. For me, that New York Times article interrupted the stream: it broke down one of our system’s elusive mechanisms into pieces I could grasp.

And therein lies the true challenge. Building bigger cannons to bombard the world with more bad news won’t get us far. Instead, we could take a step back and remember that this machine, this entire food system, was built by people. If people built it, then people can redesign it. What would the food system look like if we started over? Why is flour white? Who decides what’s healthy, and what’s not? Of the 80,000 edible plants in the world, why do we only eat around a hundred of them? Must our meat supply come from livestock? Is tech really just part of the problem, or can it facilitate solutions and assist in overcoming some of the most severe challenges?

One day, our kids might barely be able to imagine that "once upon a time" the milk in their cereal and the meat in their burgers came from animals.

I began digging into what a redesigned food system – one tailored to our challenges and cultural requirements – would look like. I learned that there are people everywhere already working on it: pockets of everything from biochemists, chefs, farmers, or entrepreneurs to small companies, universities, or big food brands.

They’re working, for example, on technologies to grow organic tomatoes in vertical farms at 10 times the speed of normal agriculture, without soil or pesticides. Such innovations question every aspect of today’s global agricultural apparatus – and lead me to envision a future in which all major cities can grow their own fresh produce. In which delivery trucks and pesticides are obsolete. In which the gargantuan web of today’s "global farm" can be shrunk down to thousands of local, self-sufficient, independent hubs.

Elsewhere, people are dissecting food staples such as dairy or meat down to the molecular level and inventing ways to swap the harmful for natural, low-impact alternatives. One day, our kids might barely be able to imagine that "once upon a time" the milk in their cereal and the meat in their burgers came from animals.

Others are using tech to imitate nature’s water cycle to create an infrastructure with which every household on the planet can produce their own drinking water.

For every flaw in the system, there are innovators working on possible solutions: people who are examining our food supply chain in its entirety, questioning it, and striving to reformulate its individual components. These people want to facilitate a long-term, sustainable global food supply, and their work has drastically changed my outlook on food. I have come to believe that our food system is on the cusp of massive shifts. Shifts that we’ll experience in our daily life, in the media, in our supermarkets, and on our fields.

The innovators and pioneers are the people who will bring about lasting change in the coming decades, if we empower them to do so.

However such a new food system might manifest itself, it will harbor enormous potential for education, for the planet, and for our businesses. The innovators and pioneers are the people who will bring about lasting change in the coming decades, if we empower them to do so.

Our goal at HERMANN'S is to find and empower these people, to tell their stories, and to foster an innovation landscape where, collectively, we can work towards a good future of food.

We are thrilled that you are joining us.