Embassy of Food at DDW23

Creative lead Barbara Vos on finding the soul of food.

Type Update
Published on 8 August 2023
Part of Embassy of Food
Embassy of Food at DDW23
Part of Embassy of Food

According to Barbara Vos, it is clear that the entire food chain needs to change considerably. “Our first mission is to reshape the conversation about how we can change the food chain,” says the creative leader of the Embassy of Food. “A healthy food chain needs an integrated view. You can achieve that with design in the broadest sense of the word.”

Food is so much more than just necessary building materials that we cannot do without. It is the foundation around which we have built the rhythm of our day. And, as Barbara Vos points out, it is a binding cultural element. That makes food not only a fascinating subject but also quite challenging to have a conversation about it that everyone can agree with. “Food is emotion. It’s identity, sentiment, culture, family. It’s heritage, storytelling, togetherness and being social. That alone ensures that the subject of food has the potential for everyone to have differing thoughts on it. Because it literally belongs to everyone.” 

‘On the one hand, there is a strong belief that innovation and technology is the future picture for how everything should be different. From another angle, there is full commitment to nature, and how we can use that as a guide.’

Food is power

At the same time, there’s the hard side of the story. “Food is also power with a harsh, totally globalised food industry behind it. A few huge companies are responsible for about seventy percent of the food that is in supermarkets worldwide. Behind that personal subject of food is a world that is difficult to unravel.” Vos also sees the same kind of ambivalence when thinking about solutions for a healthier food chain: “On the one hand, there is a strong belief that innovation and technology is the future picture for how everything should be different. From another angle, there is full commitment to nature, and how we can use that as a guide. I think we need both, but the fragmentation is now in that dichotomy.” Those two visions clash. For some time now, even in politics. “In practice, of course, there is no one solution, but there are overlaps where the best of those two worlds come together.”

Cut-out of visual mapping - credits: Rogier Klomp

Visual mapping

Vos thinks that the power of design can prevent that collision. After all, design can provide insight into how the different lines actually run in the difficult-to-unravel food industry. And what the mutual consequences are if you change something in that food system. “That world is so incredibly complex that we have just stuck a catch-all concept to it and call it a food system,” says Vos. “Visual storyteller Rogier Klomp was asked by project leader Jelleke Raats and me to create a visual mapping to make that system transparent again. In that mapping, not only the systematic piece is depicted, but also the emotional values ​​and the social and cultural context of food. It also shows what biodiversity or, for example, water does and means. With the power of design, you can take a few puzzle pieces out of the system and show how it works behind the scenes. This makes it more manageable, and you better understand the power structures, values, dilemmas and consequences involved. This way, we can offer new perspectives.”

The role of the Netherlands

One of those dilemmas is the role of the Netherlands as one of the largest food exporters in the world. “In the Netherlands, the idea arose that we should feed the world. But is that really true? I did research for the Food for Thought project by photographer Kadir van Lohuizen. In that project, we took a deep dive into how it is possible that the Netherlands has become the second-largest food exporting country in the world. He literally followed the beans to and from Kenya.”

Hush Naidoo Jade

On the one hand, Vos sees that these kinds of global food flows mainly revolve around efficiency. “At the same time, there is an enormous amount of waste of CO2, for example, due to the logistics behind it. But there is also a real waste of nutrients from this global way of working. Designer Charlotte Grün of Studio-OOK researched this, part of Biotope Bainport. For example, a potato that is dug up in October loses 30 percent of its vitamin C after three months and 60 percent after six months. The longer that a potato is on the road, the more nutritional value it loses. This means that, in our current system, you need more food to ultimately offer the same nutritional value than if you grew and at more locally. When you realise that, you think: what are we actually doing? So we really need to start eating locally and more seasonally.”

Volkskantine - credits: Floris Visser

Available to everyone

Vos, as the creative lead of the Embassy of Food, is working together with project leader Jelleke Raats to build what the farm of the future should look like. According to Vos, what is essential in shaping this is the fact that healthy food must be available to everyone. “We want to do it for everyone. It is not the intention that – as is happening in the energy transition – you get energy poverty. A Public Food project that highlights this nicely is the Volkskantine (People’s Canteen). The starting point here is that food is a fundamental right, more or less in the way Rutger Bregman advocates for basic income. Of course, this requires action from the government. By offering these kind of projects a platform and letting the designers tell stories, you can inspire and encourage people to really treat food as a fundamental right. And that it becomes a given that healthy and delicious food should be accessible to everyone.”

The chef’s design power

Another design force that should not be underestimated in the transition to a fairer and more balanced way of consuming food is that of the chef, says Vos. “They are often forgotten when solving major issues, but their way of thinking also makes food creative and fun. You can also achieve a lot when you talk about waste. We are so used to abundance now. For example, if you fancy pasta, open your fridge and think you don’t have what you need at home, there is now often a tendency to go to the supermarket and buy all new ingredients. But what can you actually do with what you already have at home? It is also design power to be able to see the possibilities.”

“We are always fast and efficient in the Netherlands. But as a result, we have really degraded our food,” Vos continues. “Our entire inspiration has also been sold out, and we have lost a piece of ourselves. Thinking creatively can bring that inspiration back.”  

Barbara Vos will be involved in various exhibitions in the near future. Part of the Embassy of Food is the Space Farming exhibition at Next Nature in the Evoluon in Eindhoven, starting 24 September. An exhibition about the logistics of our food system will also open in November at the National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam. During Dutch Design Week, you can see what the farm of the future could look like at the Embassy of Food exhibition.

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