More than calories: a deep code transformation of our food systems

Covid-19 has highlighted the systemic vulnerabilities in the Swedish and planetary food systems, while creating the political economy for deep transformation. This paper seeks to outline the increasingly critical relationship between food and the healthy development of our minds and bodies, and therefore the future prosperity of our economies and societies.

Covid-19 is increasingly forcing us to recognise that food plays a central role in the human health defense systems [1]. Yet our health treatment systems are trailing behind, with nutrition left out of governments’ key recommendations announced during the Covid-19 pandemic [image 1].

Image 1: general recommendations by the public health authority during Covid-19

For society as a whole to become resilient and healthy, it appears crucial to recognise the effects of food’s regenerative potential and its capacity for systemic prevention of illness and the avoidance of societal harm. However, to enable this, government officials, food systems actors, health care workers, marketing offices, researchers and civil society need to actively start redesigning the systems and institutional infrastructures around our food systems and address deep societal lock-ins.

We recognise these are easy sentences to write and that a true transformation will require fundamental new models of change and innovations at the systemic level. Even if the evidence for the necessity of a shift is clear, what is needed to address its deep rooted challenges, currently preventing a shift to happen, is less clear.

Evidence for the relationship between food and the human mind and body

Evidence exists for the multiple ways in which food and health are interconnected.

Today there is evidence for the negative human and financial impact of health-depriving foods. For example, today’s obesity epidemic cost Sweden SEK70 billion every year [2], type 2 diabetes cost SEK18 billion [3] and heart and lung diseases cost SEK60 billion[4] (these costs have significant overlap and can not be directly added together as one sum), compared to the total budget for health care, which 2020 was SEK102 billion [5]. At the same time it is clear in the literature that eating behaviours greatly impact these health conditions [6],[7].

Today there is evidence for food’s role in treating illness. Diets can support not only the healing of malnutrition and obesity but equally medical conditions such as cancer [8], heart diseases [9],[10], diabetes [11], depression [12]and many chronic diseases [13].

Today there is evidence for healthy food’s ability to scaffold societal prevention. Why, when, and what enters someone’s digestive system can improve mental health [14], sleep patterns [15], the ability to be physically active [16]and the body’s five health defense systems (DNA, gut-microbiome, angiogenesis, immune system, and stem cells)[17]. Combined this prevents illness and disease to break out in the body, which cumulatively supports society’s preventative capacity.

Today there is evidence for diets impacting the severity of a Covid-19 infection. A person is more likely to become severely ill or die from Covid-19 if one has a health condition such as [18] lung or heart disease, diabetes, conditions that affect the immune system, or obesity [19], as described above, eating habits can prevent or trigger all these health conditions.

Today there is increasing evidence for eating behaviours’ potential to drive societal scale thriving. Fasting [20], consuming nutrient dense foods [21]and eating for your cycle [22] are examples of behaviours that can improve physical, cognitive, social and emotional abilities.

The consequences of not following the evidence is becoming an increasing cost to society [23],[24], while only 3–4% of health care budget are allocated towards preventative measures, such as food consumption [25]. Treating physical and mental illness alongside paying for short and long-term sick leave has become an expensive bill [26]and when looking at the cascading effects of unhealthy eating behaviors at a population level, the costs of diminished innovation capacity [27],[28] and learning abilities [29] need to be taken into account as well. Therefore, enabling the availability of healthy foods and the conscious consumption of it, across the whole spectrum of society, is a burden that can not be put on the individual alone.

Identifying the root causes to why change is not happening

With the availability of evidence and the crystallisation of damage, the open question is why we are not addressing these challenges. There is no single answer or magic bullet, rather there are multiple factors as to why this is not not yet happening at the scale and speed necessary. It is crucial to take a systems perspective in analysis of this challenge and consider the root causes of the symptoms made visible in society by the Covid-19 pandemic. These root causes impact both physical infrastructures and the metabolic flows of food systems e.g. the logistics of water, energy, nutrients, fertilizers, seeds, waste, etc.

Interventions to address these root causes would need to sit across multiple layers such as:

Based on interviews conducted in the Rapid Transition Lab (including a doctor focused on functional medicine, a nurse at a cancer treatment clinic, a nutritionist and two health coaches) and additional desk-top research, there appears to be three critical challenges to consider:

  1. Pricing and accounting of food is struggling to consider its regenerative potential nor the negative externalities created through its production and consumption,
  2. Food lobbying (e.g. around what can be called milk [30]), misleading marketing campaigns and labelling of food [31] is making it hard for consumers to navigate the impact of the items displayed on the supermarket shelves and online stores’ interfaces,
  3. Disconnect between the food and pharmaceutical industries. Food companies are trying to make money through the system challenged by what is described above and pharmaceutical companies by selling patented drugs. This is minimizing the funds available for research into diet’s role in medical treatment, prevention and regeneration.

When looking closer at the food system’s incentive structures it becomes clear that ingredients triggering the brain to want more [32], for example sugar, salt, saturated fats, or all three combined [33], becomes a desirable for anyone trying to make a quick profit from food. Unfortunately, these items tend to give no or minimal support to the five health defense systems, and over time, large consumption of such products can even harm them [34 interview]. Today this reality is not being reflected in the cost of the production nor the price for the consumers. It seems to be that the pricing and the accounting systems are not designed for people’s, nor the planet’s, regenerative health.

If consumes like to make better choices by themselves, the words, colours, and symbols on the wrapping of ingredients are often misleading [35]; creating cascading effects at societal scale. What is more, people are bombarded with commercials about cheap prices on traditional and social media channels, putting the focus on price over quality [36 interview]. It appears, therefore, that the negative freedom enjoyed by food companies to use certain language and imagery when marketing food is actually diminishing people’s positive freedom to enjoy healthy lives and consequently creating increased liabilities for future generations [37].

The last structural challenge (mentioned in this blog) is the lack of high-quality and large-scale research into the relationship between diet, healing, prevention, and regeneration. Today, large clinical studies, necessary to change treatment recommendations [38], are almost always sponsored or entirely paid for by pharmaceutical companies [39]. They have little reason to prove that for example, cranberries can be used in cancer treatment [40], as they can not write a patent for cranberries. Therefore, there are very few large and high-quality clinical studies made to show foods’ regenerative role in society [41]. In Sweden, this means that governments and doctors have too little evidence to back up detailed recommendations about using food in prevention and treatment. Without the necessary investment into this area of research, the necessary change will be very difficult to accomplish.

To ensure resilience in society it is therefore critical to create the incentives for researchers, government officials, food systems actors, health care workers, marketing offices, and individuals to become a part of a new transitional system that enables food to play a regenerative role in building society’s capacity to heal.

Enabling the transformation

Multiple entangled interventions will be necessary to transform the current scenario, requiring the involvement of actors from across the food and health care systems, national, regional, and municipal governments, research institutions, and civil society. To start a conversation with these actor groups, four propositions, addressing the three main challenge areas (described above), have been made and outlined as ‘what if…’ statements below. We invite you to engage with them together with us, exploring why or why not these could help to drive the change necessary.

(1) Pricing not just the production but the externalities of foods

Increasingly food and our food systems have been optimized from a production costs and supply side optimisation perspective. This reality has supported the massive reduction in the cost of food and calories over the last 18 years [42], while off loading increasingly significant societal costs. These liabilities include, as earlier described, the impacts of sugary, fatty and salty food items and the loss of nutrition dense foods on 1) sick leave costs, 2) life style driven health care costs and 3) opportunity costs; in terms of the cognitive capacity of society as whole. This is not including the food systems’ impact on the environment, such as GHG emissions [43], biodiversity loss [44]and soil erosion [45] — to name a few. Today these outcomes are almost always ignored when food is being priced.

What if the societal and environmental costs generated throughout the supply chain of food had to be considered and paid into an autonomous self-balancing system, held by a public good trust, which simultaneously cross finances and balances different parts of the food economy that create societal value? The externalities that are generated throughout the food value chain would be considered at each level, from farmers to producers to distributors, to create a true value market inclusive of future societal liabilities and assets. The cost of negative externalities, and the value of positive externalities, would be standardised and decided collectively yet self determined by the actors involved when pricing their products — for example a farmer when selling their cabbage, a manufacturer when selling their cabbage crisps.

What if this balancing system even considered how different people are impacted by different foods?

Image 2: Pricing not just the production but the externalities of foods

Such a system would seek to shift the incentives in the current food system and encourage consumers to buy those foods that are benefiting their health defense systems and the planet.

As farmers and producers would need to evidence their self-set prices (through verifying externalities generated) they are incentivized to both continuously self-evaluate their practices and continuously improve them as means to reduce liability costs and increase competitiveness under the new market and price logics.

This systemic realignment of our food system and incentives to societal outcomes as opposed to capital optimisation is vital.

Some actors are already testing new logics to pricing food. Felix Climate Store [46] is one example and in our interview with them, we understood that when they based their prices on a product’s CO2 emissions, items that usually never get left on the shelves became harder to sell, for example, their classic frozen meatballs.

In order to increase the complexity of the pricing beyond CO2 emissions and look at multiple outcomes at the same time (suggested by the what if… statement above) would require highly-complex information infrastructures. Companies would need to be able to combine different types of data (public, private, sometimes personal) in order to build real-time and context based pricing models. This might not be a 1st horizon scenario, however, with the technology at hand today, this could become possible over time.

Still there are multiple important questions to ask before moving forward with such an idea. For example, who decides what positive and negative outcomes are and for who? Considering the development of accuracy in measurement, how would the system tackle discrepancies in externalities estimated and measured e.g. would there be retrospective adjustments, if so who would hold the risk for that, would bespoke insurance products be needed? What would be required in terms of labelling, displaying and packaging of foods? What would be asked of the individual to navigate this system? What research would be needed to cover current knowledge gaps about how different food impacts people differently? recommendations? And the list could go on.

(2) Accounting for the re-generative potential of food

Many decisions in today’s economy are informed by the reports created by accountants. Still, the existing accounting systems are struggling, similar to the pricing models, to account for the spillover liabilities and assets created in the wider system. Instead accountants are concentrated on the economic costs and revenues of one specific entity, in order to put a number at the end of the balance sheet. This is creating a simplified picture of the complex value flows generated by the supply chain of food and the systemic discounting of externalities (this is not only an issue within the food system [47]).

What if the accounting systems and accountability structures were able to account for the entangled values and liabilities created by food and include the many co-beneficiaries impacted? By combining new accounting practices and monitoring systems (making sense of the outcomes created) new lines could be added to the balance sheet. Maybe even items that do not directly impact the entity concerned? This would paint a different picture for companies to consider when making decisions.

Image 3: Accounting for the re-generative potential of food

Such a shift would create incentives to consider the entangled values and liabilities generated throughout the supply chain when choosing, for example, what crops to grow, as well as how to grow them.

The new sustainability reporting requirements [48] are an important step in this direction, as companies are being asked to report their social and environmental impact. However, until these impacts are visible on the balance sheet, we may not see enough change as urgently necessary [49]. Visibility would influence a companies’ ability to raise capital, and the cost of that capital, it would also influence the insurance premiums needed. Equally, it would make it more transparent for customers how a certain company operates.

At the same time as this shift seems important, it can not be discussed without mentioning the risk of trying to put a number on social and environmental impacts. What sort of design decisions would be needed to be taken in order to calculate this, for example what impacts, over what time-span — and who would take these decisions? For example, how would the interests of non-human actors and future generations be taken into account, and what would happen in situations where a balancing between interests would be needed? What new capabilities, skills and professional training would be needed in order to develop this system? And, as this would also require highly-complex information infrastructures, when could this be made possible?

(3) Taxonomy for regenerative food

Today the marketing and labeling of food is often done through culturally associated claims, such as clean, all natural, real fruit, happy cows, independent family farmers, humane and environmentally responsible products, naturally sweet and the list could go on. The ambition is to create a cultural wrapper around food which overwhelms its actual nutritional value and associated regulatory requirements, to enable us to believe a product is good and healthy for us/or the planet, without the associative evidence or reality.

It is becoming clear that this cultural taxonomy of food has been massively exploited for the intentional or the unintentional misdirection of informed choices.

What if there was a new evidence-based-claims requirement for the taxonomy for regenerative food? Instead of only addressing the words regenerative and food, this could include a whole series of different words and sentences. Let us walk through an example.

Imagine a new food product is being placed into the market. The producer would in this case be required to make a self-declarative impact model of the product’s impact on different people, society and the environment. Based on this open model, they would be permitted (or not) to make a portfolio of self-declarative claims, such as this product will improve your immune system or the local soil quality. The portfolio of claims could then be structured as a sign that this is a regenerative food, if, for example, the model shows sustainable input, positive societal outcomes and low externality/positive externality process.

These claims would need to acknowledge the situational variance, i.e different foods have differential impacts on different people, at different times and different foods have different impacts on soils and ecosystems in different climates. This would mean that the portfolio of claims shifts depending on who the buyer is and when the purchase is being made

Similarly, what if products which are systemically degenerative would be required to label their regressive impacts similar to cigarettes?

Image 4: Taxonomy for regenerative food

Such a taxonomy would, beyond helping customers navigate different options, create the incentives for food actors to monitor the impact of their businesses. This would increase the awareness of externalities created in the system and potentially encourage improvements to be made. The evidence would need to consider the entire supply chain and could further inform new collaborations across the chain.

Äkta Vara is an existing customer owned organisation trying to address issues with food labeling and marketing using campaigns and their Ä-mark [50]. They are making it more transparent what a product contains, or maybe rather what it does not contain. Another example is kliMAT, allowing customers to scan items and find out their climate footprint [51]. While both of these examples help the customer to navigate the shelves of a food store, neither creates a framework for how to name and market. Currently this is regulated by the EU-taxonomy [52], which is not able to address the complexity of impacts in the system.

While this “EU Taxonomy 2.0” for regenerative food could improve the current situation, it is important to note that the marketing of food is still likely to be miss-leading; mostly due to the difficulty of ensuring quality of evidence, and therefore verifying, claims. This is not necessarily due to intentional misleading of customers, but rather because a food item’s impact is dependant on the entire supply chain, which is entangled with many other systems. Any generalization, therefore, becomes hard to make, without an over simplification. This requires us to ask how to create the necessary information infrastructures to evidence claims uniformly and while allowing actors to make sense of their specific impacts?

(4) Invest in evidencing

Today there is a funding gap for research about food’s impact on the body [53]. As stated earlier in this article, the main root cause of this is the disconnect between the food and pharma industries and the lack of incentives to prove that food can be regenerative.

What if the self-balancing pricing system was used as a seed fund, matching public and private investment into research to evidence food’s impact on the body and mind? This research would be necessary to make the earlier suggested pricing, accounting and taxonomy models work and could encourage private and public bodies to raise their investments.

Image 5: Invest in evidencing

Once there is enough evidence to make the new models function, there would be clear incentives for private companies and public bodies to keep investing in this area of research (as it would help them prove what their impact on society and environment is).

The increased understanding of food’s impact on mind and body would not only enable the new incentive models, it would further help the health care system navigate how to use food in prevention and treatment. When a next pandemic arrives, governments may even know what diet to recommend populations to eat in order to help their health defence systems to stand up against the disease.

Kostfonden is a fund that is already trying to address the current funding issue. They are particularly targeting food’s role in treatment [54]. However, it is not enough and it will be important to better understand diets’ role in personalised prevention and regeneration (personalised food is a growing area within the food sector and will need to be explored by itself).

However, before the investments are pooled, the suggested funding model would need to carefully consider its governance structures. What is the decision-making architecture for deciding who, or what, gets funding? There are already issues with food lobbying in research related to food [55], how can this be an opportunity to ensure that the research is done for public good? Equally, how can the fund ensure long-term sustainability for researchers while leaving space for the inherited uncertainty in the process? What would the Intellectual property requirements be for research to avoid recreating many of the ills and perverse incentives of our current food system?

Lastly, how can the insights and results generated from the research become radically legible for people across food and health care systems, different layers of governments as well as individuals? And who is responsible for these translations?

Combined, these four “what if…” statements, could, if realised with careful consideration, have transformative potential and ensure that food’s regenerative ability is seriously considered throughout its supply chains. However, these suggestions are not enough and it will be crucial to identify additional intervention points moving forward.

Image 6: Provocation ecosystem

Therefore, in the coming months, we will continue exploring the questions and ideas raised in this blog together with different stakeholders. We invite you to reach out if you would like to collaborate or contribute as this needs to be a multi-actor endeavor — Linnéa Rönnquist linnea@darkmatterlabs.org.

This provocation is written by Linnéa Rönnquist with contributions from Aleksander Nowak, Chloe Tager, and Indy Johar. Linnéa is an architect and co-director of Dark Matter Labs and she brings her experience from working with the relationship between food and the human mind and body during the creation of the Region of Stockholm’s Strategy for Enabling Psychological Health and Wellbeing and the Prevention of Psychological Illness 2022–2030, ReWired Sandbox and Mind//Shift.

The text is a part of the Rapid Transition Lab, a collaboration between Stockholm Resilience Center, Dark Matter Labs, and Vinnova, which you can read more about here.

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Designing 21st Century Dark Matter for a Decentralised, Distributed & Democratic tomorrow; part of @infostructure00

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