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Thursday April 26, 2018
Are food trends trustworthy?

"We are living in the future. I'll tell you how I know. I read it in the paper fifteen years ago."
--John Prine

Want to know the trends in food for 2018? Any number of sources, good and not so good, are more than willing to stretch their necks out and make the predictions of what shoppers will and won't go for in the year ahead. A few are here, here and here.

Want to trust the trend predictions for 2018? That could prove a little more difficult. To demonstrate, Farmer Goes to Market takes a decade-backward look at what was ordained to become hot in 2008, proving once again that prognostication is not for the faint-hearted.

What National Public Radio predicted would be the hot trends 10 years ago.

Vegetarian revolution, (again). This year, "Supermarket Guru" Phil Lempert predicts, "...whether it’s trends in diets or celebrities praising vegetarianism or just more recommendations from nutritionists to put more fruits on veggies on our plates, there is an obvious nudge towards more plants in our diets." Likewise, a Vegetarian Times study in 2008 showed 3.2 percent of the population had become vegetarian, and almost one in four were "following a vegetarian focused diet," portending an accelerating trend to vegetarian.

Meanwhile, the meat is on. Sure, we could all be consuming fake meat that bleeds, ground up bug parts and vegan water in the future, but here's one prediction that's a pretty safe bet: Meat consumption will rise in 2018, just as it has in years past. USDA predicts rising pork production will combine with higher beef and poultry production for another record total meat supply in 2018. Per capita meat consumption, although not a record, will nonetheless increase another 1.5 percent year over year in 2018, following 2017's increase of just under 1 percent.

Ethical eating. Several different sources around the country were assuring us that 2008 would be the year we all started eating our ethics. NPR boldly predicted, "The year 2008 was to be the year of conscientious eating, whether that meant hopping on the 100-mile-diet bandwagon, choosing to buy local meat directly from a producer, or...simply thinking about how to make changes in your diet that benefit your health, the environment, and your community, your actions are contributing to a growing trend of conscientious eating that is changing the way we think about food. Conscientious eating means thinking about where your food comes from, what impact it has environmentally, socially, economically, and personally (in terms of health, culture, and enjoyment)."

New York Times columnist turned professional gardener Mark Bittman in 2008 on why we must eat our ethics

Fast-forward to today, and you hear the echoes, again from Lempert, for instance: "Now, we come to the new 2018 food world definition of mindfulness, which I will describe as simply 'the quality or state of being conscious or aware...,' a new consumer attitude mostly led by the Millennial generation to truly understand everything they can about a particular food or beverage, and then supporting the company—brand or retailer—by aligning with their values...." Seven out of 10 US and UK shoppers want to understand an ingredient list, the Guru says, and ethical packaging claims have increased seven times since 2010.

Meanwhile, continuing monthly surveys of shoppers by Oklahoma State ag economists show a contrarian regularity in shopper concerns that's almost boring in its regularity. The top values driving food choices, according to OSU's monthly survey tracking at least 1,000 U.S. shoppers for preferences and sentiments on food, are the traditional Big 4: Taste, safety, price and nutrition. At bottom, a continual mix of the "food-woke" attributes: environmental impact, animal welfare, fairness and novelty.

Even woke shoppers buy based on taste, price, safety and nutrition.

Remember bottled water? The year 2008 was the year the world would finally give up the environmental extravagance of bottled water. "Because of the environmental costs of producing and shipping bottled waters, more and more chefs are offering only filtered tap water to customers," TIME announced. Today, the U.S. bottled water sales volume comes to about 12.8 billion gallons, the highest volume of bottled water ever sold in the United States, making this country the world's largest consumer. That's 39.3 gallons in 2016 for every man, woman and child in the United States. Two brands generate more than $1 billion in annual sales apiece. The reasons are far from "mindful:" Convenience and zero calories, unless you're considering the gluten-free, non-GMO version or raw water.

You can have your local cake and ethnically eat it, too. "Locavore," defining someone who seeks out locally grown and produced foods, was the New Oxford American Dictionary's word of the year coming out of 2007, making eating locally the biggest anticipated food trend of 2008. Fast forward to today, and local is everywhere, along with all its attendant contradictions. Furman Foods, for instance, the $80 million East Coast purveyor of Buy Local—"...an important trend that is not going away. With increasing interest our customers want to source product as close to home as possible," the company's prognostications predict. Which is well and good, unless followed immediately by the next trend Furman and others predict in the same breath: ethnic cuisines. "With almost worldwide availability, the ability to try new and different flavor combinations from around the world has led to an unrelenting customer base when it comes to exciting new menu items. ...Ethnic ingredients will hit the scene, this year from Africa."

You can't stretch "local" much further than that. A new study by Johns Hopkins points just how ridiculous that confluence of trends was, and still is. When researchers probed survey participants about exactly what that term meant to them, they expressed the same obvious confusion about what constitutes local food as Farmer Goes to Market has pointed out before, believing local translates as farmers markets, farm stands and other direct-to-consumer supply chains, usually from within an area smaller than their own state. Meanwhile, they express the same "you can have it all" contradictions as Furman, believing a global food system is great when you want African peppers, but not so great when you want to be conscious of production methods, trade relations and food safety.

Local may be trending, as usual, but it's trending in a potentially unhealthy contradiction that Farmer Goes to Market has warned may present credibility risks to retailers selling it.

Organic takeover meets organic fatigue. "Just when it seems like the market for organic food can’t grow anymore, it does!" according to one organic-centric website, predicting not only organic food, but "even more organic food" for 2018. The site credits Forbes, which credits millennials, for the organic food market's "whopping" $43 billion sales for 2016, according to USDA, which represented about 5 percent of total U.S. retail food sales that year. Meanwhile, USDA statistics demonstrate certified organic farmland and organic pasture remain at less than 1 percent of total acres in production. An area in size just over half the Nebraska Panhandle would hold every certified organic farm in the nation.

But with every hard-won increase in the percentage of organic foods comes new criticism. A 2014 report slammed the organic industry for using deception and fear to sell food fashion. A University of Nebraska study last year showed shoppers across the board ranked "certified organic" as the least important trait to look for when buying meat, milk or eggs, even as they ranked as high the very label traits—like non-GMO, hormone-free, humanely raised and free-range—that organic farmers must demonstrate in order to win USDA's organic certification. Organic advocates are now fighting over whether hydroponically grown produce should be considered “organic” since there is no soil involved in the growing process. Criticism of paradoxical "Big Organic" continues. Organic has fallen far from the darling of the new food movement it was a decade ago.

Your flower garden is now a compost heap. "We love the idea of shipping containers and abandoned urban buildings as the ecologically sound commercial farms of the future: located wherever they’re needed," predicts the executive VP of Mattson, a food-development consulting firm. Lempert, likewise, is onboard with the city-farming trend: "Vertical indoor farming is more efficient bringing more farms closer to where people live, reducing expense and environmental impact," he predicts, invoking visions of skyscraper farms and Mars-outpost-style mini farms in every suburban backyard. From Chicago to San Diego to New York, the prediction that urbanites not only can grow their own food within their neighborhood, but must, is not new but apparently gaining steam. Never mind the reality a recent University of Washington study points out: Even if every backyard and public park were plowed under, only 1 percent to 4 percent of Seattle residents would ever be fed by city farms. Fully feeding the city “locally” would require reaching out and consuming an area 54 miles in diameter.

Stay tuned.

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