It’s no longer an iron curtain than divides us. According to Bernard Salt, Partner KPMG and renowned demographic commentator, it’s a goat’s cheese curtain. If there was ever any doubt that palates outrank politics, the proceedings at the recent Food SA Summit dispelled it. While the presence or absence of goat’s cheese in the fridge might reflect, as Salt proposes, our relative ranking on the scale of “hipsterdom”, figuring out what’s likely to shape our eating choices in the future is not so straightforward.
At first glance, the culinary scene in Australia looks a bit like an all you can eat buffet. While the theme of the summit was “We are what we eat”, it seems deciding what to eat has never been so perplexing. Now, faced with unprecedented options, the choices we make will be crucial. They will determine not only our own health but that of the planet.
The Australian palate has always been shaped by overseas influences. As Salt puts it, “the way we absorb new ethnicities is through our palates”. It started back in the 1950s with what he calls the “Mediterraneanisation” of our lifestyle, followed by Asian, Arabic, Indian, African and a veritable global larder of influences. What began with the arrival in the supermarket of a strange vegetable called Bok Choy, has become, as Salt puts it, “an invasion by a whole family of Choys”.
Cultural and social diversity has always been reflected in what we eat, but now fundamental shifts are occurring in how we think about food. Every speaker at the summit confirmed what the audience already knew; today’s consumer is more interested than ever before in what they eat and where it comes from. Overwhelmingly, this is driven by generational change, our preoccupation with health and the knowledge that environmentally our existing system of food production is unsustainable.
Peter Morgan Jones, Executive Chef at Hammond Care, is well aware of how critical the next few years will be for aged care institutions. “We’ll see a huge shift with the first influx of baby boomers coming to aged care,” he said. “Lots of providers are doing a perfunctory job food wise. That has to change, because poor quality will no longer be acceptable”. For the aged, like everyone else, food is about more than sustenance. As Morgan Jones so rightly points out “It’s about dignity”.
No-one could be more attuned to the burgeoning market for special needs foods than Michael Horrocks, Managing Director, Lifestyle Bakery, where they’ve been baking gluten free bread for 20 years. “It became popular from the mid-1990s,” he said. “Before that no-one even knew what gluten was.” As only 1-2% of the population suffer from Coeliac disease which causes gluten intolerance, he struggles to explain the exploding demand for his product. But he’s hardly objecting. Whether the consumer’s assumption that gluten-, fat-, preservative-, salt- or whatever-free products are healthier is one that’s been manipulated by vested interests, no-one really knows or is prepared to say.
Another industry leader pondering this is Callum Elder, Executive General Manager, Quality & Innovation, Simplot Australia, manufacturer of iconic Australian brands such as Birds Eye, Leggo’s and Edgell. “There’s lots of misunderstanding today about nutrition and dietetics,” he says. “For example, all this concern about dairy avoidance. Look at French women. They consume more dairy than anyone else in the world and they have the lowest incidence of cardiovascular disease.” Not to mention enviably sylph-like figures.
While fresh, wholesome and locally produced are at the forefront of consciousness for many consumers, cost and accessibility are the priorities that really drive purchasing behaviour, according to Elder. He acknowledges the demand for high quality, but insists there’s space in the market for what he calls the “premium convenience meal”.
Whether their motivation is genuine or illusory, it’s clear that people want simple, natural, unprocessed foods and manufacturers ignore this at their peril.
Joel Salatin sees this desire to return to the source as the hunger of the human spirit to “reconnect with its ecological womb”. Salatin, described as “the world’s most innovative farmer,” manages the multi-generational Polyface Farms in Virginia, USA and is an inspirational advocate for local food systems. He says our existing system is cracking under the strain. Ultimately, “we can’t outrun nature’s balance sheet”, so change is non-negotiable. Change for him has come in the form of a regenerative economy based on an intricate relationship between all components of the system; human, animal and land, one that he summarises as a “linking of field and fork.” And it’s working amazingly well at Polyface.
What Salatin describes as people’s fundamental desire to “get back in the kitchen” and “learn by doing, tasting, touching and smelling” is echoed in the philosophy behind The Agrarian Kitchen, owned and operated by Rodney Dunn. Very much a return to the roots initiative, this farm-based cookery school located in Tasmania’s Derwent Valley gives people a chance to connect with food at its source, to recognise, learn and understand by engaging all the senses. As Salatin says, “we’ve been pushing people aside, promoting an ignorant relationship.” Enterprises like his and Dunn’s, by moving backwards in the food chain, aim to re-establish not just sustainability but authenticity.
For the food industry, the human connection is just as important. According to Brenton Leitch, Managing Director, Learning and Productivity, the success of a business is entirely dependent on its people. A culture where skills are nurtured and employees are encouraged to develop a sense of “autonomy, mastery and purpose” will thrive.
Göran Roos, Chair, Advanced Manufacturing Council, believes that by 2017 food will become South Australia’s most important industry. “We can capitalise on this by delivering extra high value for money,” he said, “by riding the waves of change and most importantly by understanding consumer behaviour.”
Therein lies the challenge for the food industry. In an environment where innovation is crucial and competition is fierce, responding to the ultimatums of the market often takes precedence over engagement with the customer. There’s no predictability about the social and cultural shifts influencing our behaviour around food, except that they’ll accelerate. Differentiating between trends and lasting cultural evolution is impossible in the short term. Hype and marketing hyperbole surround every blip on the culinary radar screen, sending consumers scurrying between miracle ingredients, revolutionary diets, gastronomical sensations and new super foods with unflagging optimism.
Any summit delegates expecting a definitive guide to the future eating choices of Australians would have been disappointed. But if they were looking for signposts to navigate a course through the sometimes hallucinatory gastronomic landscape, they’d have come away well satisfied.
by Anne Green