Eating Our Way to Health
I pondered what would be of the interest to politicians and concluded it must be something that is personal and dear to them. At least it would be for me in their role. I scratch some numbers in the back of an envelope about the impact and reach of the vegetables produced with our seeds. As the number four global company in vegetable seeds, we produce many seeds. And since we count every single seed we make, it’s easy to calculate how many kilograms of vegetables are produced with them. The number is breathtaking: we make more than 200 billion seeds per annum, reaching a quarter Billion (250 million) consumers every single day. Mind boggling, isn’t it?
Recently at a get-together with friends the topic of healthy diets came up. No, no, I did not start it! Somebody else did. Because by now I am careful not to raise the topic myself, to avoid being perceived by friends as a preaching health nut… it would be counterproductive. It is amazing how the healthy diet topic has recently gained traction, we all agree. Low carb, vegetarian, meat replacements, etc. Browsing through magazine stands at airports, everybody can observe the tsunami of nutrition headlines, recipes, etc. Similarly, TV and radio offer a sleuth of dietary programs and information. Go to a bookstore – same story! Since media and business usually react to customer demands, they obviously must perceive a heightened interest for the topic among consumers. With my friends we wondered, is this for real or are we just seeing a trend because we ourselves have started to proactively look into the topic?
Head of Vegetable Seeds at Bayer
What are companies, food retailers, academia saying: I read a quote from Imperial College London emeritus professor of food marketing David Hughes at a recent fruiter’s conference: "In my life I have never seen so much activity in vegetable-based foods," he said. "'Big Food', like 'Big Soda', is in trouble so they are buying up vegetable and fruit-based start-ups”. And he goes on: “The BOL Food brand supplies vegetarian ready meals, Del Monte offers vegetable noodles, cauliflower rice has become a supermarket staple, and salad supplier Florette has diversified into smoothie kits. Plant-based milks are even in the Consumer Price Index." The trend across the developed world is a combination of apparent healthiness with convenience, he concluded.
This is all music to my ears. I always wondered why people make so little connection between the few hundred grams of food they eat and digest every day, and the obvious health effects they must have. Yes, we have often counted calories, but have given little thought at the composition of our diets. It’s like the intrinsic connection between cause and effect, which very often we understand intuitively (fuel for our car, food for our pets, physical fitness for our bodies) but seem to neglect when it comes to the food we consume ourselves. Or – dare I say it – used to neglect. A visionary politician once said: “You eat the landscape”, referring to the external effect that our choices for food have; yet there obviously is an even stronger and much more direct internal effect: We literally eat health – or not.
Vegetables play a major role in healthy nutrition. Most of them are intrinsically healthy. That motivates me greatly – working in a vegetable seed business. I check a few numbers on the net to see whether we are making progress. We are! According to FAO statistics world vegetable production has quintupled over the past five decades to reach about one billion tons of vegetables. Tomato is the most important vegetable crop with about 160 million tons produced in 2011, or about 15% of the total vegetable production. And its global per capita consumption has tripled over the last centuries. Today Europeans consume ca. 30 kg/yr, and Americans ca. 40 kg/yr of tomato.
We have a huge responsibility to consumers. The nutritional content of the vegetables produced from our seeds, their availability, how visually attractive they are, or how they are introduced as snacks, determines to large extent their presence in people’s diets and have a strong bearing on people’s health.
A great topic to discuss and share ideas! I know what I want to say at the meeting in Brussels. I want to discuss about food and health, and provide some ‘food for thought’ to the audience. I also decided I would like to continue this conversation… Look for my next blog and check our website.