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Food systems and the myth of individual responsibility

Society and systems

I used to be in IT, so I think a lot about systems. Modern life is full of systems. The size, depth, breadth and interconnectedness of them is so vast, but also somewhat obscured from the end-user. Not just technical ones, although those are probably the ones that most immediately come to mind for most people here. Beyond the systems and algorithms involved in serving content on the web, there's logistics systems that get packages and products where they need to go. Our food environment is one such system; from farm to manufacturer to retailer, although that is a gross oversimplification. The scale of these systems cannot be understated, and it is only growing.

You, as the end user, have very little visibility of how these systems work, and in most cases that's intentional. You don't know how the algorithm works, because it becoming common knowledge would destroy the competitive advantage. You don't know how logistics networks work, there's no need to. There's also the argument that some logistics operators don't want you to know the conditions their drivers operate under. I don't know nearly enough about these systems either, but I know enough to know they exist and are hideously complicated. Like it or not, you are dependent on a myriad of systems and networks. We have always been interconnected, but now more than ever we rely on massive systems we have little to no awareness of.

Dark systems

Increasingly these systems and networks and our ignorance of them are weaponised against us. Social media makes heavy use of UX elements generally referred to as Dark Patterns. These are psychological tricks that hack your brain into interacting with the app or website in ways that you don't really want to. The minute and badly-positioned "close ad" button, the addictive endless scroll, the guilt-tripping "delete account" confirmation, the intentionally misleading product search. All these are designed to give you the illusion of agency while simultaneously manipulating your choices.

Analogous to this, I'm coining the term "dark systems", for systems that trick, force, or coerce you into engaging with them in ways that you don't really want to do. Most people know that plastic waste is bad, and that they should minimise their consumption of single-use plastics. In practise, we get plastic straw and bag bans that purport to minimise individual impact, meanwhile drink manufacturers continue to be the biggest contributor to plastic waste in the world. You have the illusion of agency, but you are forced to engage with the system on their terms.

Likewise, the idea of a "personal carbon footprint" was invented by a petroleum company to divorce themselves from the consequences of their profound inaction regarding climate issues. Cars and fossil fuels are, for most people, the only real way to exist in a world built around those very concepts. You are forced to engage with the system on their terms. Attempting to assign individual responsibility is disingenuous at best, and gaslighting at worst. The entire concept is designed to shift blame to consumers while doing as little as possible to actually change.

Food systems

The modern industrialised food system is no different. Something I see come up again and again in nutrition research is "consumer education" and "enabling better decisions". I will never oppose the idea of educating the general public, and granted that warning labels and nutritional information panels come from government regulators, but I feel like they have fallen for the myth of personal responsibility too. At best, these regulations miss the point.

The global marketing budget for a major fast food chain was just shy of $400 million US in 2022. They wouldn't spend that money if they didn't know marketing worked. Compared to that amount of psychological warfare, a warning label or kilojoule count sticker doesn't really cut it. A voluntary "be treat wise" or "snack responsibly" message on a chocolate wrapper is nothing but lip service, and only really serves to do the same thing as a "personal carbon footprint"; disclaim responsibility for a situation that they themselves have created.

Put that together with socioeconomic pressure, time pressure and skill issues, it's unsurprising that people make choices they know, on some level, aren't wise. No amount of labelling or education will change that. You have the illusion of agency, but you are forced to engage with the system on their terms.

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