#Ÿnspire – Nicolas Bricas, Food systems socio-economist and researcher, CIRAD
Impact guides the daily life of all Ÿnsecters: how can we feed the planet while conserving resources and biodiversity? As our initiatives broaden, we give a voice to those who are helping change the world, offering alternatives and creating sustainably. Today we met Nicolas Bricas, food systems socio-economist and researcher at CIRAD, the French Agricultural Research and International Cooperation organisation. He works on food systems issues - from production to waste recovery. He also sits on the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES - Food). He explains his work, how agriculture affects world balance, and how food is at the heart of our individual and social construct. We discuss agriculture throughout the ages and how changes in the world have influenced our consumption habits. We also talk about individual responsibility as consumers towards food products.
Agriculture was once the jewel in our crown. Nowadays, it seems to be disliked and not given much consideration. Why is this?
Before the industrial revolution, agriculture was at the heart of our society. It served four purposes: feeding people; supplying energy – firewood, oil, dairy cattle, etc; providing working materials – timber, straw, fibres, etc; and fertilising land – plants to provide nitrogen, trees to bring up fertile matter from the subsoil, animals to transfer fertiliser in the form of manure from grazing areas to agricultural areas. But from the 18th century, the discovery of fossil fuels and mineral fertilisers made way for the industrialisation of agriculture. This revolution freed agriculture from three of its functions: energy, materials and fertilisation, and confined it to food. It also enabled an increase in agricultural productivity and triggered a boom in production. This in turn fed the growing non-agricultural population, enabled urbanisation and slowly led our societies to food over-production and over-consumption. Today, for most of us, agriculture is a long way off, in the countryside, while 55% of the world’s inhabitants live in cities. We are no longer the sons and daughters of farmers. We only see agriculture through the window and on television screens. We no longer know how it works: how vegetables are grown, which foods are in season, what the cultivation cycles are. There is an increased distancing between us and this system.
What do you mean by “distancing”?
We can interpret “distancing” in different ways. The most obvious is the geographic distancing: our food comes from further and further away. It travels even further than us. Take our breakfast as an example: your coffee, tea or hot chocolate and your orange juice have most definitely crossed an ocean to reach you. We eat and drink the world in the morning. Next is cognitive distancing: we don’t know how agriculture works any more, or what it really is. There is also economic distancing: whereas in the past, the producers sold their produce directly, now products pass through multiple intermediaries before reaching our plates. The distancing is also social. Previously, food was taken for granted. We ate according to the habits of our family and social environment. Today, food is an individual affair, leaving everyone to find the optimum balance between health, pleasure, environment, social equality, animal welfare, etc. Finally, the distancing is political: we no longer manage our agricultural and food systems which are in the hands of a few large companies whose lobbies guide policy. All these distancing factors generate feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, abandonment, doubt, and, as a consequence, lead to a search for proximity.
Since 2020, there has been a succession of international crises. The pandemic stands out. With the various lockdowns, we observed a growing attraction for local and organic products, but also for home delivery meals. What’s your view on these changes?
This search for proximity is accentuated by the growing awareness of the risks of globalisation. Geographical proximity with local products; economic proximity with short supply chains and direct sales; cognitive proximity with renewed interest in agriculture through urban gardens and an interest in cooking; social proximity with the appearance of new consumer-prescriptors on social networks; political proximity with local food policy councils in which residents participate. Overall, this shows the desire to regain control of our food. A lot of companies have already understood this expectation and are playing the local, short supply chain, gardening and advice card. New players are arriving on the food system arena and are surfing this wave: online orders and delivery, personalised advice based on consumer behaviour with the same profile using big data, social network groups to exchange best practice. With these innovations, particularly online orders and delivery, a phenomenon that grew in importance during the lockdowns, the final step in the food model – the kitchen – is being turned into a product, whereas before it remained largely domestic. In Brazil and Indonesia, we are seeing increasing numbers of people buying prepared meals from their neighbours, rather than cooking for themselves. For families who cook and sell additional portions, it’s a way of reducing the cost of their food; for buyers, it’s a way of accessing homemade food as a product.
What role does food play in our relationship with others? And in our relationship with the world around us?
Mealtimes are often synonymous with sharing and exchange and therefore social interaction. Without being clearly stated, mealtimes are full of rules: respect the food, the guests, ensure everyone has the same amount, stay clean, don’t waste anything. We learn to live together by eating together. Food also defines our relationship with what surrounds us: animals, plants and our environment, because agriculture has shaped the landscape. For far too long, we have not considered the impact of our food because we have wanted to consume as cheaply as possible. Today, it is the most precarious economic system: too many food delivery people end up in the food aid lines because they do not earn enough to feed themselves, too many farmers are throwing in the towel because they are not paid enough for their work. This phenomenon bears witness to the need to collectively rebuild our food systems to make them fairer and more equitable. Furthermore, it is interesting to observe the emergence of reflections on living beings other than people: there is a shift from exploiting nature to protecting it. Today there is a shift towards the idea of negotiating our relationships with animals, plants and even microbes that make up our microbiota and on which our health depends. In fact, in some countries there are lawyers who represent the interests of rivers, forests and animals. We are giving a voice to living beings in the context of a new relationship with the world.
Ÿnsect was created to respond to the food challenges facing our times. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO) indicates that by 2050, the global population will reach 10 billion people, and demand for protein will increase by 52%. How to you see the future in light of these looming food crises?
It’s essential to remember that we are still in a food system of overproduction and overconsumption on a global scale, which does not prevent vast disparities between countries. The war in Ukraine has shaken people who are seeing an uncertain future with food shortages. In reality, we produce 30% more than our actual nutritional needs and we feed an increasing number of farm animals. It’s important to remember that we are a long way from being short of food and resources. However, it is equally important to move towards more respectful systems and away from overconsumption generally. We know that we consume too much protein, we buy too many clothes, etc. We can try and limit this. It’s also important to push companies to take responsibility. For example, we often talk about waste as being the consumer’s fault. In reality, consumers are victims of this overproduction that pushes them to buy and not to feel guilty for throwing things away. We have to change the system, ideally by choice. I think that all food solutions, whatever they may be, are good to take on if they allow us to take back control and to ensure that consumers find what they are looking for in food, particularly the first essentials: taste and pleasure.
Find out more:
Bricas N., Conaré D. et Walser M. (Dir), 2021. Une écologie de l’alimentation. Versailles, Editions Quae, 312 p. [Texte intégral en accès libre sur le site de Quae]
Various other video and written resources on: the UNESCO Chair in World Food Systems website