Keith and the mismatch around food

I have been meaning to write about the famous evolutionary mismatch for quite some time now. Let me be more precise. I have been meaning to write – anything – for a good amount of time, but the disparity between the ideal designs in my head and the chaotic reality of everyday routine is quite significant. Then Keith Demicoli happened.

What has Keith, creative communications specialist and TV presenter, got to do with evolution and with the great mismatch? It’s all a matter of coincidence. Let’s rewind to the point where I meet Keith and his expansive talent for the first time, and to be honest, I can’t remember when that was. It’s like I knew him even before he had the opportunity to impress me as moderator of our panel discussions – the seminar on sustainability in the food business sector; the conference on gender issues and the gap in STEM on the occasion of International Women’s Day; the interview on his early morning show on TVAM on the occasion of World Food Day; and very recently the conference on food markets organised by the Malta Food Agency. All very elegant shows of skill and preparedness.

But before I continue to throw the basic ingredients of this story, like eggs and flour in a simple recipe for a home-baked cake, let me say something about the evolutionary mismatch itself. The best way to explain it, perhaps, is to turn to Steve Stewart-Williams, author and psychology professor, who, in his brilliant and highly entertaining book The Ape That Understood the Universe: How the Mind and Culture Evolve, tells the tragic tale of one hedgehog. While out on one of his foraging adventures in the night, this hedgehog steps on the road and comes face to face with what he describes (if you can imagine a hedgehog describing anything) a noisy metal monster with bright eyes; and instead of running as fast as he can, he simply rolls into a ball. The hedgehog is squished dead. The end.

It’s not hard to understand why, instead of escaping danger, the hedgehog paralyses in the middle of the road and waits for his end. It’s not his fault. The hedgehog was simply acting upon his best instinct for survival. Rolling into a spiky ball is certainly a very good strategy of defence when the enemy is a predator who is trying to figure out whether you’d make a juicy meal for breakfast, but with cars it doesn’t work that way. The reason for the hedgehog’s inappropriate reaction is that there is a huge difference between the environment in which the hedgehog and his instincts evolved and the modern environment. This gap is the evolutionary mismatch.

Let’s go back to Keith. In an interview for the magazine The Sunday Circle of June 2021, Keith had explained how the discovery of what is now his favourite book – Thom Hartmann’s A Hunter in a Farmer’s World, had completely changed his outlook. Here was an eye opener to the fact that in their different ways many individuals struggle to fit in the modern world simply because it does not correspond to the ancestral one inhabited by hunters. Long story short, this is how I was aware that Keith had introduced himself to the subject of evolution and the mismatch between things.

So when, in the middle of the panel debate on the evolution of markets in the food sector, Keith turns to me and drops the one question that would fix the chain, “Sonya, how can we address this mismatch between what the consumer wants and what the producer offers?”, I was unprepared but not surprised.

Good thing I am not a hedgehog and the conference hall seemed like a safe space. I said something about revolutions, evolutions, and how the modern consumer is demanding food that is equally convenient and authentic, but I got nowhere close to addressing the gap. I needed more time to reflect and to ruminate, and the feeling of having ninety-nine pairs of ears waiting for my solution did not help.

What is the answer, then? Do we have a mismatch in the food sector today because consumer preferences have evolved in unrecognisable ways, or because producers are not listening hard enough to consumers’ demands?

In our policy-making around food and the need to address both security and sustainability (a mammoth task), we speak about the need to drive a long-term shift in food culture, tackling food waste, inequity, and issues such as nutritional deficiencies and obesity. But I think it is more fundamental than that. We need to be reminded of our basic instincts for food. The ones where food comes to satisfy hunger; pass the tests of all our senses (seeing the right colours, smelling the best aromas, and tasting texture and flavour); and serve to unite us in celebration with our friends and family. This is the world in which we knew how to choose healthy because anything toxic was bad news; the world in which food evolved from being a means for survival to something of pleasure to be shared with others.

More than a mismatch, the problem we have is one of disconnect. A separation from nature and our basic instincts; a misunderstanding of what people as consumers want and need to have from food; and a divide between the benefits of what’s being offered and what the real thing should look and taste like.

Yes, Keith, there is a mismatch and it starts to form in early childhood when busy mums like myself give their infants pureed carrot rather than the crunchy thing. They say that eating a ripe juicy peach that has just been picked from the tree is one of the rare pleasures of natural living. The solution to our mismatch is not found in educating those who cannot eat anything that’s not excessively sweet and ultra-processed. The solution is that we need to rediscover the joy, right from the very beginning, and for that we can rely our wonderful senses to do the job. Now, when can we have a moderated panel discussion on that?