RegenerAction 2022: The importance of narrative to feed awareness

Trust and transparency needed

Words play a central role in our world. They shape human sensibilities and can convey important and powerful messages. Words can educate about biodiversity preservation, responsible use of resources, food waste reduction, proper nutrition, and healthy diets. Because clear communication in all its forms (articles, videos, and even labeling in food packaging) is the starting point of awareness and conscious behavior.

However, the lack of proper communication and information is evident on a global scale. The rate of malnutrition, now considered amongst the major causes of death and illness worldwide, the massive increase in eating disorders, and the current state of environmental degradation are all clear indicators of the fracture between man and nature.

Around the world, people appear to share the same difficulty in understanding the real values behind food and eating: how food production can regenerate the landscape and the state of natural resources, the role of food as a powerful medicine, both for the body and for the mind, food as a vehicle of conviviality, connection, community building, food as a tool to transmit ancient knowledge, traditions, culture, and food as a precious link between generations. Humanity today is overloaded by the news, as the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer spotlights the epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust towards institutions and major information sources. The real challenge is bringing communication back into the service of human and planetary well-being, to accelerate the path towards healthier consumption and production patterns.

The power of clear communication

Climate literacy, environmental literacy, and food literacy are crucial to growing healthier communities and leading consumers toward better food choices.

The complexity of these challenges can only be mitigated through an integrated ecological and climate transition, capable of extending awareness to all stages of the food supply chain, from production to product disposal.

This is evident in terms of nutrition, with increasing studies spotlighting the direct connection between food combinations and their potential to accelerate or prevent diseases (both in the body and in the mind as recent “microbiota–gut-brain axis reveal), just as the relationship between the state of the environment and the agri-food practices with the micro and macronutrients in foods. These are all aspects that should be clearly communicated to consumers. To lead consumers towards conscious food choices and better nutrition levels, increasing pressure and expectation is placed on labeling the fronts of packaged goods, as a tool to raise better awareness.

However, the reality today is that people spend an average of 35 seconds reading food labels (at least according to a study mapping 6 European States), and in most cases the reason is that food labels are often misleading and contain fragmented information.

Our food choices (and therefore nutrition) are influenced by a plurality of factors: price, accessibility of food, and the way food is displayed in stores, environmental factors, social and cultural dimensions, psychological mechanisms, and food communication should adequately consider them all.

EU strategy on communication: from food labeling to widespread awareness

Defining a strategy on the nutrition information system to facilitate consumer understanding is one of the key steps undertaken by the EU Commission to lead member states to set clearer “nutrient profile” criteria to be applied homogeneously across the whole region. It is within this framework that the EU States have started to autonomously design nutrient profile models and front-pack nutritional labels: the famous Nutri-Score, developed by France in 2017, and the Italian Nutr-Inform battery system are just two of the several attempts that compose the range of possible types of nutritional labeling schemes. In fact, harmonizing the EU Front of Pack Labeling in a systematic way before the end of 2022, as part of the Farm to Fork EU Strategy, is the real challenge for the EU Policy, which will be called to choose between numerical labels and color-scored labels, positive logos and warning labels, mandatory and voluntary labeling.

In terms of better communication and increased awareness, the European Union is also working on a proposal for a Regulation on Ecodesign for Sustainable Products to let consumers know the environmental impacts of their purchases, as well as building its path towards an EU strategy on sustainable consumption to enrich the European Green Deal and the circular economy package with comprehensive European policy on housing, lifestyles, and nutrition.

These are commitments that build on the already active EU plans on improving nutrition at the regional level, that can be evidenced in the 2014 Action Plan on Nutrition, to reduce the number of stunted children by 2025, the Farm to Fork Strategy, aimed at ensuring food security, nutrition, and public health, the concrete support to the Nutrition for Growth Summit (2021), and the collaboration with the Scaling-Up Nutrition (SUN) movement.

Spreading food literacy and the healing power of food

Since its very beginning, the Future Food Institute has been on a mission to make exponential positive change, to sustainably improve life on earth, through education and innovation in global food systems. Training the next generation of change-makers, empowering communities, and engaging government and industry in actionable innovation are some of the concrete actions that spread climate and food literacy.

These are building blocks that are possible only through powerful partnerships, such as that with Food for Climate League, with which we are working to create new food and climate narratives that democratize sustainable eating; but also through constant collaborations with UN agencies, such as FAO, UNIDO, and high-level nutrition experts, such as Gerda Verburg, who is leading the SUN Movement and who we had the pleasure to host in several dialogues (as the UN Food System Summit Dialogue).

We are working on improving awareness of the healing power of food in all our educational paths, from the in-person to the digital Boot Camps, and on a daily basis at the Paideia Campus, to spread the potential of sustainable ways of living such as the Mediterranean Diet, and embrace the complexity behind food systems.

Increasing awareness of the nutritional values of single foods is important, but not sufficient: consumers have to be reconnected with food as a whole system.  Not informing consumers about where food has been produced, who produced it, how many kilometers food has traveled, and which agricultural practices stand behind it inevitably compromises not only nutritional awareness but also hinders local prosperity.

For this reason, we are spreading the potential of the Mediterranean Diet as a comprehensive example of integral ecology, truly respecting the landscape, the territory, the individual, the community, and the economy, by fostering diversity in all its forms and adapting to the cycles of nature. This is the food literacy that is missing in today’s educational system and consumers’ life and that is why it is crucial to communicate this. Through food and direct experimentation and observation of food production and functioning, it is possible to implement an integrated educational-behavioral approach to food that involves not only children, but also their families, teachers, and the community at large, as we have recently achieved by exporting the Mediterranean model into New York City schools.

But increasing awareness also passes through investigating and researching the real causes behind the current nutrition gaps to shape the current food market for the better. This is the reason behind our collaboration with Dole, with who we released a joint White Paper (Nutrition Unpacked) aimed at improving (good) food communication and avoiding dangerous misconceptions about body and health. But we also applauded and supported the voices of Italian journalism that spread the values related to the agri-food sector, and tell the story of food from the point of view of technological innovation and environmental sustainability.

This was at the heart of the contest we organized on the occasion of the Italian Cuisine Week in the World at our Paideia Campus, together with EIT Food and the National Union of Journalists’ Associations for Agriculture, Food, Environment, Territory, Forestry, Fisheries, and Renewable Energies (UNAGA). More than 40 Italian journalists were selected by an outstanding jury according to the following criteria: relevance of their content to the agri-food sector, clarity of exposition, and impact. It was an opportunity to disseminate knowledge, best practices, and testimonials on issues of technological innovation and environmental sustainability, as well as symbolically support the winning journalist’s activity, thanks to the economic prize granted by EIT Food Journalism Award.

This week our Paideia Campus is also hosting the EU Agrifood Week, which aims to tackle the issue of sustainable communication, especially in the panel “Communicating Agri-food Systems Sustainability for Regenerative Action.”**

Among the various interventions, we take up the one by Alex Giordano of Rural hack. “Communication is not only about marketing, but also, for example, making the scared farmer understand that there is a chance to combine tradition and innovation. How? By doing things together and pooling expertise. We need to recover the performative dimension of communication but also of life. In the past, there was little communication and a lot of community, because rather than with words, people acted with deeds. Today, on the other hand, it is the reverse: people talk but do not act. It is time, therefore, to do things and tell them well: to think about impacts and return to the product. One must be able to communicate the sustainable product in a way that the customer understands: complexity must be explained. Embracing complexity is the only way to communicate it effectively. Beyond marketing and advertising: communication must be Storytelling, storytelling of values and communities.” – Alex Giordano, from Rural Hack

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