About food, sustainability and the role of marketing

  • by helga
  • 19/07/2013

My first experience with MOOCs couldn’t be going any better.

Let me explain. MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course and is what it says on the tin.  There are several providers including some of the most renowned universities, from MIT to Stanford, Harvard, UCLA, etc. Most of the courses and providers come from the US. At the moment I’m doing two courses: Sustainability of Food Systems by the University of Minnesota, and a Public Speaking course by the University of Washington.

It’s simply amazing the quality and the engagement you can create with students from around the world, using simple online tools which have been around for years. MOOCs rely on a login system and ‘classrooms’ divided into weeks/lessons, one new lesson released every week, video lectures, academic papers (PDFs), reading questionnaires and forum activities. The forum activities are particularly interesting, as you can discuss the topics with thousands of people from different parts of the world. Yes, thousands. In the first course there are about 25,000 of us enrolled, and in the second about 40,000 alumni – just to give a glimpse of the scale. A high quality team of professors/lecturers, and a well organised online system make it all work really smoothly though!

Today I wanted to talk a little bit about the first course above, which focuses on a global life cycle perspective of food systems. I think we should all be keen to make better food choices as consumers, not only from a health, taste or nutritional perspective, but also from a  sustainability point of view.

We’re 6 weeks into the course and I’m really impressed by what I’ve seen so far. This post is a snapshot of a few ‘revelations’. Apologies to all of those who are well acquainted with the topic, and please note that these are my personal takings and not the actual content of the course:


  • Sustainability sounds like a really fuzzy, over-used word but there is meaning at the end of the tunnel. It refers to a concept we could define as ‘intergenerational equity’, i.e. the ability to leave to our descendents at least as much quantity and quality as we have available now. In this case,  food.
  • Different people call different things ‘food’. At a basic level, food is simply four components: water, lipids (fats), carbs and protein.
  • Take a look at what the world eats: a selection of photos (see part I and part II) from Hungry Planet, published in Time.
  • Historical decisions around what plants and animals to domesticate are key to what we eat nowadays. Many factors went into these decisions.
  • Foods originated, in most cases, in completely different places from where they’re now  produced and/or consumed the most. Kiwis are not from New Zealand.
Origin of the foods we eat
The world in one day of food.
  • I became acquainted with this wonderful data repository by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, where you can look up data for the last decades on production and trade of crops and livestock, including prices, emissions, investment, balance sheets, almost everything you can think of. It’s truly amazing. Ever wondered which country is the top producer of bananas? Go ahead and find out. You will also see in the homepage that there are 870 million people in the world who are still hungry.
  • Lots of very poor countries have excellent climates, soil and conditions for the most nutritious and exquisite foods. Lack of infrastructure, investment and education, plus poor economy, social conditions and bad rulers are what gets most in the way of stopping the hunger from within. No surprise there.
  • But could we stop the hunger if we looked at the world as a global system? Actually, how we facilitate the trade and transfer of our food is really at odds with what a sustainable system should look like. The world’s poorest starve in an age of plenty. For example, did you know that most of the food aid from the US contributes to perpetuated poverty of impoverished African countries, and is mainly used by US producers to keep food prices up in the US? Have a look at this article. Or this one. There is a lot more on this infuriating topic, if only we were looking for it.
  • Did you know that we lose/waste about one third of all the food we produce (in weight), and about 24% of the food in calories? This is food that never reaches a mouth. In poorer countries it usually happens during production, storage and distribution, while in rich countries waste happens mostly on the retail and consumer sides.
  • Did you know that ‘Big Food’ multinationals are being exceptionally successful with sales in developing countries like India and Brazil, displacing local food habits and culture? Crisps, chocolates, cereal bars and bad quality fast food may eventually take over the world, which is good news for shareholders.
  • But how can we buy, prepare and share our food to avoid over-processed, pre-packaged, ready-meals of dubious nutritional quality? Is it feasible to buy every day all the healthy, fresh ingredients required to cook a tasty and nutritional meal, cook it from scratch and eat it with your family?  Perhaps it is, but at least not so far, not in a large scale. And in many countries women have been abandoning this traditional role to focus on paid employment.
  • When we choose what to eat, we tend to consider price, taste, nutrition, health concerns, and sometimes religion and ethics. Sustainability is a hard concept to weigh in when you have so many sources of evidence and different criteria, and no single, widely recognised system helping you with simple choices. Should I buy cheap prawns from Thailand? Probably not, for several reasons – but I didn’t find this on the label.
  • Talking about labels, most of them are ‘greenwashing’ anyway. Look out for the ‘seven sins’ of eco-labels: the hidden trade off, no proof, vagueness, irrelevance, lesser of two evils, fibbing or worshipping false stamps.
Should I go for ‘responsibly sourced’ coley or ‘sustainably-fished’ tuna?


Hey, not all is dark and grim though! There is plenty of scope for improving the state of affairs. For example, strategies for reducing food loss and food waste include food redistribution; better, cheap storage like evaporation coolers and plastic storage bags; better food date labelling; consumer awareness campaigns; reduced portion sizes in catering and hospitality, etc etc. On the contrary, the instinct that this knowledge develops in me, a knowledge that I know only scratches the surface, is one of looking for better ways of doing things, of raising awareness of what can be done. There are so many gaps, inefficiencies and flaws in the food market, and so much potential to make (good) business out of these.Understanding the real problems is the first step for creating better products, offering more value to consumers and creating more sustainable markets.Marketing has a role to play too – helping to shape better alternatives from market research to product development, from brand positioning to distribution strategy and communications.

Preparing, sharing and eating good food is also a wonderful thing  🙂

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