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Where do food fears come from?

It’s a small blessing that the unprecedented panic about the coronavirus have pushed fears about food into the background. This is largely because coronavirus (so far as we know) isn’t spread by food. But this doesn’t mean that fears about food safety have gone away.

In a 2019 Tedx talk, food futurist Jack Bobo talked about people’s fears about what they eat. “People are worried about food when food has never been safer,” he contends. “It’s because of how we perceive risk. It’s how our brains are making decisions.” He adds, “You should not trust your brain. It’s lying to you all the time.”

One problem, says Bobo, is confirmation bias—“the tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.” He urges listeners to ask, “When was the last time you changed your mind about something that was really important?” (Possibly never.) He adds, “We need to be open to changing our mind and actively looking for information that will help us to change our mind and make better decisions.”

Another problem, Bobo goes on to say, is the availability heuristic—here meaning “what information comes to mind when I say a word? He cites the word “natural”: when it comes to mind, we think of “butterflies and rainbows and puppies” rather than salmonella, Ebola, and Zika, although “they’re all natural too!”

In this case, Bobo stresses, we have a bias toward natural versus manmade things (such as pesticides and preservatives) even though the latter are designed to make our food safer.

Bobo ends by saying, “In the next 30 to 40 years, we will need to produce as much food as was produced in the last 10,000 years of human civilization. That is a challenge. And the only way we are going to be able to do that is use science and technology and innovation,” including all means from organic methods to genetic engineering to reduced food waste.

Bobo’s conclusion: “Your need to fear less, you need to read more, and please—ignore the hype.”

All in all, Bobo is probably right—although as always, “hype” means points of view that the speaker himself disagrees with.

In the end, though, Bobo doesn’t really go far enough in explaining the nature of food fears. Where did they come from in the first place? From that universal whipping boy, the media? If so, where did the media get this idea?

Food fears, as I see it, probably have to do with the increased length of the supply chain. A hundred years ago, when most Americans still lived on farms, people were closer to the sources of their food and had a clearer idea of what was likely to go into it (often having produced it themselves). Today they have very little idea of where their food comes from or what has gone into it. That is bound to feed into anxiety.

But I think the issue runs deeper. A hundred years ago, Americans were a worldwide laughingstock for being so uptight and hypocritical about sex. Over the last couple of generations that has changed completely. Sex, even in its most explicit aspects, is widely and frankly discussed. Much of the guilt that surrounded it seems to be gone.

But has it gone, or has it just moved? My pet theory: over the last fifty years, Americans have transferred much of the feelings of guilt and anxiety they had about sex onto food. Everything is dangerous; everything is a source of concern. Of course, the obesity rates are higher than they have ever been, so some people have reason to feel guilty.

What’s the lesson here for the produce industry? Many people’s food fears are deep. The first step in addressing these fears is understanding them.

Richard Smoley, editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published eleven books.