I believe our global food industry is contradictory in its relationship with nature. On the one hand it is perceived to be the epitome of natural and in close partnership with nature. On the reverse, false advertising presents completely unnatural products, such as the carbonated drink 7UP, to be natural. Similar practices are evident throughout the food industry, removing the perceived natural, creating an increasingly false perception for consumers.
More subtle conveying of ‘natural’ characteristics within the food industry can be seen through the ongoing promotion of free range and organic items, especially relating to poultry. These strong advertising campaigns accompany a new movement of ‘clean eating’ that again reinforces a yearning for the natural within the food we consume. However, what we define to be natural is a fluid concept and will change in relation to the individual consumer and context.
‘Natural’ is something we construct from our own personal experience and relationship with food. As I am writing this blog, my historical relationship with food as well as my interactions with food today alone will be drastically different to yours as you are reading this. Therefore, we can view nature as socially constructed. Whereby the natural word is strongly related to the social world and culture, with our understandings influencing the foods and processes we understand to be natural.
Even foods we perceive to be natural, may have associated unnatural histories. Many people would consider potatoes for example to be natural, due to the limited processes involved in their production. However, potatoes were initially grown within Latin America before being brought over to Europe, which could be unnatural as they are not an indigenous crop to the European market. So, where do we draw the line in understanding what is natural about the food industry?
Because of selective breeding and rearing practices, chickens, the broiler breed in particular, are much bigger today compared with historic measurements. In the 1920s the average weight for a chicken was 2.5 pounds (approximately 1.1kg), while today the average weight is 6 pounds (2.7kg). This astonishing growth can be seen below, which shows the stark variation between the typical sizes of chickens over different time periods.
Not only has the size of the chicken grown a bewildering amount, the rate at which chickens grow to their fullest has also increased substantially. In 1925 it took 16 weeks to raise a chicken to its full size of 2.5 pounds, while today it takes just 6 weeks to raise a chicken to its full size of over double the weight. I believe the alterations of a natural population seems to be a worrying characteristic of the food industry, displaying little regard for the consequences of human intervention.
This alteration with the chicken population and subsequent nature is in part because of a growing global population. The poultry industry claims the growth in the size of chickens helps to meet the growing demand for meat, which is expected to double by the year 2050. Bigger chickens therefore mean fewer need to be killed for the same amount of meat, improving the efficiency of production systems. Yet, it can also be attributed to a stronger desire for bigger breasted chickens as our diets have evolved. So, whilst the poultry industry argues efficiency is at the heart of these changes, ultimately consumer desires and diets are the driving force.
Selective breeding over a short period of time and generations has altered the genetics of certain breeds of chickens. Therefore, today’s chickens experience much wider health implications, including issues relating to their bones, heart and immune systems. Interventions such as veterinary care and nutrition supplements are therefore more widely required. I see these as conflicting desires from consumers, whilst they wish for healthier, happier birds they are conversely buying chickens who are experiencing greater scientific intervention through a series of wholly unnatural breeding process.
The strict cosmetic demands on the food industry, like wider contemporary society, has resulted in many unrealistic expectations, especially relating to the fruit and vegetables. Pressure is increasingly on producers and retailers to offer perfect fruit and vegetables, free from imperfections and marks. In an environment where food waste is an ever-increasing issue, retailers especially are coming under scrutiny to promote these so called ‘wonky vegetables’.
At one retailer Asda, 15% of potatoes, 15% of parsnips and 10% of onions do not meet the specifications that are currently in place, which undoubtedly results in huge waste at a time when food security is a central global issue. While EU restrictions on fruit and vegetable specifications were lifted five years ago, there has been little relief from this scrutinising behaviour.
Some retailers are offering boxes containing wonky vegetables at a reduced rate of 30% cheaper, however this does not alter wider perceptions about perfection. Although 65% of consumers are willing to buy wonky fruit and vegetables, when given the option consumers will pick the best option and leave the misshapen. I understand this to be a bizarre process developed by consumers, whereby although many are accepting to the natural imperfections, they are also disgusted by a bent carrot or deformed courgette, both of which are naturally occurring.
An example of wonky vegetable boxes available at Asda. [Source: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/asda-to-become-first-uk-supermarket-to-sell-wonky-veg-boxes-a6857856.html]
On the one hand, the inherent industrialising feature of the food industry has resulted in the removal of nature and the ideals of ‘natural’ the food industry in a quest to meet the consumer needs of a continually growing global population. This is apparent when looking at the case of broiler chickens and the vast increase in weight and size over a short period. On the other hand, the removal of the natural from the food industry relating to the reluctance of consuming imperfect vegetables is for an entirely different agenda. Wonky vegetables play to consumerist ideals of cosmetic perfectionism, which is widely evident through developed societies. Both these issues raised will be important in the future on a global scale influencing food security and justice.