Preventive Medicine Column
Dr. David L. Katz
For Food Day, 2012, on 10/24, I was privileged to take part in a panel discussion on the future of food at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. My panel, asked to consider what our diets will be like in 2050, devoted particular attention to issues of culture, cost, convenience, and competing priorities.
I raised the issue of culture, because it is both the cause of our current crises, and the potential cure. Our attitudes about food and exercise are cultural. We are all raised to love food, and to associate with it the special events that punctuate our lives. We are increasingly raised to think of physical activity as a spectator sport, or a punishment.
Our cultural attitudes about the use of our feet and our forks are ill advised, but not crazy; they always made sense before. For most of human history, calories were relatively scarce and physical activity was unavoidable. Our cultural imperatives and prevailing inclinations are well suited to that scenario.
They are, alas, ill suited to the modern scenario: a bountiful glut of tasty but nutritionally suspect calories, and the inexorable displacement of physical exertion of every variety with ever more reliance on technology. Everything about modern living that makes it modern is conducive to the epidemic obesity and rampant chronic disease we are experiencing. To avoid even worse, we have to turn the Titanic around- the Titanic, in this case, being our culture.
Questions about the future of food are questions about the future of our culture. Can we change before calamity- related to famine, chronic disease, financial collapse, crop failure, environmental degradation, water shortages, overpopulation, climate change, or any variation on these unpleasant themes- leaves us with no choice?
I think we can.
But first, two sobering experiences: sexism and racism. Both are bad- and both are undeniably tenacious. We are 150 years after the Civil War; 50 years after the peak of the Civil Rights era; and we have an African American president. Yet racial prejudice is still on prominent display in our culture, to our collective shame.
Similarly, women’s rights are not fully secure even today, even in America, even 100 years after the suffragette heyday. Within the past week, we learned that women just out of college earn only 82 cents for every dollar a man earns to do the exact same job.
These are precautionary tales about how hard it can be to change culture. Women’s rights are an issue that affects fully half of the entire population intimately, every day- and we haven’t managed to deal effectively with it even so.
Time, then, to look on the bright side- which happens to be much about money.
While it is not true that more nutritious foods consistently cost more, we can do a lot more to make them cost less. One of my predictions for the future is that those now bearing the costs of disease care will chip in a lot more to incentivize healthful choices, such as better foods, because that is far more cost-effective. As companies and insurers spend more to promote good nutrition, they will also exert more influence on the Farm Bill, which will slowly shift to reflect the modern priorities of health and sustainability- rather than mass production of corn.
But the truly great hope for the future of food involves treating health more like wealth.
Paradoxically, we have long thought of food as currency. We are ‘bread winners,’ we ‘make dough,’ and we ‘bring home the bacon.’ Food was the first currency, and modern currency is spoken of in terms of food. Yet we revere wealth and cultivate it, while routinely renouncing investments in health for want of time or inclination.
Food is a currency- the original one- and we could treat it more like one again. Investing in health and treating it as something of great and universal cultural value- something we raise our kids to aspire to as they aspire to being ‘rich’ is a true, potential game-changer for the future of food, ourselves, and our planet.
The best way to predict the future…is to create it. Unlike genes, culture is a medium of our devising. We created it- and we can update it. And by so doing, we can create the more nourishing future of food we would all like to predict.
Dr. David L. Katz; www.davidkatzmd.com