Five global food trends for 2015

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I have no idea whether cauliflower will send kale back to the farm leagues this year, or if Greek yoghurt is doomed to eat the dust of customers rushing away to kefir, or whether harissa will redefine cool and sriracha will be yesterday's hot sauce.

But I can see some clear trends arising from deep-going changes within our global food system. We are in a moment of greater shift disturbing than any since the modern food movement emerged full-blown from distinct social, cultural, spiritual, ecological and public health organizations during the 1990s.

My list of ten themes that are reaching breakthrough proportions this year suggests a tipping point. We have now crossed the divide to a place where food practices are never taken for granted, where contesting dominant practices is the norm, and where it assumed that a lot of things have to change. 

Demographic changes probably deserve as much credit for this transformation as food organizations, but the point is that the food movement is now in phase 3 of the famous 4-phased change cycle -- first they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they debate you, then you win.     

The first global megatrend, rising militant protests by food workers, reveals a paradox about what is called the food movement -- though gourmets, restaurant reviewers and dietitians are welcome, the movement is primarily about people, not food. That's why justice and social equity are so central to the food agenda.

Throughout the Global South, rebellion against impoverishment of farmworkers has been the norm since the 1990s, giving rise to the huge global peasant movement, Via Campesina. By 2014, Via Campesina was routinely invited to a range of UN meetings related to food, agriculture and rural life, and contributed key portions of the agenda.

In North America and Europe, most food jobs are in cities, largely in processing , retail and services, and protest has an urban swing.

Organization is furthest ahead in the U.S., owing to low minimum wage levels ($7.25 an hour federally) and the absence of medical benefits in most food jobs. In December, fast food workers in over 24 U.S. cities held a one-day strike for a $15 minimum wage.

Eleven cities, including Seattle, Lo Angeles and Chicago, have established their own minimum wage, often at double the rate of the federal minimum, as they recognize that low wages are a major cause of rising urban poverty. The math was outlined by the New York Times on June 28, showing that many WalMart workers were so poor that they qualified for $5,000 in government subsidies – which means that a typical WalMart superstore costs taxpayers $904,000 in subsidies each year. Higher wages for Wal Mart workers means lower taxes for middle income earners.

A Food Justice Certified food label was launched in 2014 -- roughly the equivalent of the fair trade label in the Global North.s to come under pressure soon to establish specific minimum wage rates, following in the footsteps of Seattle, Los Angeles and Chicago.

The second global food trend arises from increased empathy for farmed animals.  

Thank California, which has the chutzpah to set a trend which corporations must follow, or risk losing sales to the California market.

 This year, the state bans chicken eggs, pork and veal raised in cages or crates denying them a normal and healthy range of motion.

A number of corporations have already signed on to meet or exceed the California requirements, including such corporate giants as Nestle, Unilever, Starbucks, Burger King and McDonalds, among others, are extending California practices throughout their operations.

Global competition is not always a race to the bottom.

The third global megatrend of the year-end also has a medical side to it – the huge amount of research, discussion, and food sales based on pro-biotics, the billions of thingies living in the biome of the human gut. 

Awareness of tummy ecosystems upsets many applecarts of today's food system, based largely on Big Science norms of the World War 11 era, when chemicals were manipulated to control both human and soil health. Once the tummy and soil are afresh as living biological systems, not inanimate chemistry sets, the care and feeding of tummies and soils must proceed differently.

January, 2015's top medical discovery, based on potential replacements for antibiotics that have lost their potency after decades of over-use, is based on research into billions of previously-unexamined soil microbes that have protective potential as human drugs.

Shoppers should be ready for more kefir, kim chi, kambuchi and fermented pickles and sauerkraut, which support a healthy gut, linked to improved digestion and even mental health. 

Food writer Michael Pollan deserves much of the credit for popularizing this new paradigm. Eat food, mostly fermented, not too much, might be the watchword.

The fourth global megatrend surfaced on December 9, when the UN hosted 26 university presidents, who signed onto a Presidents United to Solve Hunger pledge to make food and nutrition security a campus priority.

Food is pre-eminently a youth issue, and food studies, passion for food careers and internships, craft beer, food trucks, fair trade, and local and sustainable food offerings are the talk of North America and European campuses. Now there's a global peg for the movement to hang its hat on.

The fifth global megatrend is the rise of political organizing. Politics has been the weak suit of the food movement. Its partisans are young, often considered too inexperienced to be candidates or organizers. 

Mostly, food politics suffers from the classic "problem of collective action." If one group campaigns for better labelling laws, everyone, including people who sat the campaign out, shares the benefit. The downside to this happy ending is that most people decide to let someone else do the work, and they will enjoy the benefit as "free riders."

As a result, food organizations are rarely as forceful as much smaller groups fighting for deregulated firearms, subways, low-cost parking, bicycle lanes, and so on -- all of which offer something tangible for members of a specific group.

Despite this Achilles' heel, food politics is increasing getting a leg up, if not actual legs. It became obvious last year and will become more obvious this year, that one issue ready to jell is school meals, which has several forceful constituencies over and above the general public interest.

School meals are already hot in the US, where antibiotic-free chickens are demanded in schools in major cities. Demand for wide-ranging school-based food programs may emerge in Canada during the federal election, thanks to a School Food Coalition sponsored by FoodShare, Sustain Ontario and Food Secure Canada.

You'll understand more about the rise of food politics after you've read about the other five global food trends -- in my follow-up article, a few days from now.

Wayne Roberts is the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food.

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