Food for Thought: Global Food Chains

Boxes full of avocados in a Kenyan cooler, American cattle as far as the eye can see, and growing vegetables in the Saudi desert: photographer and filmmaker Kadir van Lohuizen mapped global food chains for the series Food for Thought. He began in the Netherlands. “Initially, The Netherlands was supposed to be a small chapter, but due to COVID, I couldn’t travel. Moreover, I discovered that the Netherlands plays a significant global role in areas such as seeds and livestock. Dutch knowledge and technology are also applied worldwide.” Van Lohuizen will give a lecture during the Young IFFI Event on September 19, where he will take the audience on a journey through these food chains with compelling photos.

‘Do I actually still know where the food on my plate comes from?’ This question marked the beginning of the worldwide research Van Lohuizen conducted into our food chains. His interest in the subject also stemmed from previous series he made, for example, on waste flows. “I had seen with my own eyes how much food is thrown away. Of course, you know it happens, but when you see the scale, it really makes you think. Especially knowing that there are also people in this world dealing with hunger and malnutrition. Yet, we throw away food every day, such as bread that’s four days old, even though it’s unnecessary, because of different ways to use it as an ingredient.”

Climate Crisis
In another series, on climate crisis, he saw how climate change forces farmers to adopt different methods. For example, due to floods related to a rising sea level, they have to choose different crops or have no choice but to relocate. “Due to COVID, the war in Ukraine, and incidents like the blockage of the Suez Canal, we realized how dependent we are on global trade and logistics and how fragile this can be. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, my generation has always seen food as a certainty – we never run short. During COVID-19 pandemic, the vision emerged that we should produce more locally. Food chains needed to be shorter; the advice was to eat less meat and animal products, and we had to go back to seasonal products.” A few years after the pandemic, little of this has materialized. Except in China, one of the places Van Lohuizen visited. “In 2022, they made food security and – safety priorities. That’s not an empty promise; they are really committed to it. It’s interesting to see how they do it.”

Closed doors
The distance to food production is great for many people. “We hardly ever see how our food is produced. From farms to tomato growers and from slaughterhouses to distribution centers: most doors are closed to the average consumer. Yet, as consumers, we should know where our food comes from. The marketing message of the food industry often doesn’t fully match reality. Maybe that’s why it was quite challenging to get into farms and food companies. I had to overcome a lot of suspicion. Most companies weren’t eager to let me in. At first, COVID was often used as an excuse. In many cases, I initially visited without a camera to explain what I wanted to do. That helped. The list of companies that did let me in grew, making it easier to convince others. It was difficult to visit a distribution center, which surprised me. The slaughterhouse, where I expected problems, was a bit easier. I couldn’t get into a Dutch chipped potatoes company. I don’t know why.”

Van Lohuizen describes his research as a unique journey. “I was often both amazed and surprised, especially in terms of efficiency. For example, I didn’t know how much money was involved in seed breeding and trading. The technology in greenhouses, such as for tomato cultivation, is very advanced.” He also went to Hereford, Texas, the ‘beef capital of the world,’ and found a farm with 250,000 cattle. “We can’t imagine that. How do you capture that on film?” Van Lohuizen used a drone for some shots. “When I saw those miles of cattle, I could hardly believe it. However, the farmer is convinced that he is doing a good job, especially in terms of efficiency. He developed a new breed which produces more meat and consumes less feed.“

The series has been turned into an exhibition, a TV series, and a book. “The exhibition and TV series include age restrictions and warnings due to images from meat production. To me, this shows how far removed we have become from food production.” In the series, Van Lohuizen allows viewers to form their own opinions. “I have an opinion too, but I choose not to share it. I merely document. I think it’s a good choice in this polarized society. Otherwise, I might be pigeonholed immediately, which would undermine the series. Surprisingly, I received very little criticism from the participating companies. I even received invitations from companies that initially didn’t want to let me in.”

Significant changes
For Van Lohuizen, it is clear that food production as it currently stands is no longer sustainable for our planet. “But I have also seen many bright spots. We know we are capable of significant changes. So far, we need to be forced by external influences, such as COVID or climate change. There are ways to continue feeding the growing world population. But changes are necessary. Most companies and farmers I’ve visited recognize this as well.” Change in the Netherlands is not only necessary because of changing laws and regulations or the climate change. It’s also because of the scarcity of labour. “In many Dutch food companies, no Dutch is spoken anymore. Dutch people no longer want to do the work. Migrant workers do it. There is much to be said about their housing and working conditions. Employers, however, are worried: where will they find their workforce in the future, now that things are improving in Eastern Europe, such as Poland?”

New generation
Van Lohuizen places his hope in the new generation. “I don’t see my generation changing quickly. Young people however don’t take all our food habits for granted. The exhibition was also visited by many families. Children asked their parents: why do we eat meat every day? Eating meat every day wasn’t common when I was young, nor was eating mangoes, let alone in winter. If we could no longer buy mangoes in winter, would there be a ‘mango uprising’? People now feel entitled to all these products because they are available in supermarkets. I think we need to move away from that mindset.”

More info: www.noorimages.com/kadir-van-lohuizen

Kadir van Lohuizen
Photographer & filmmaker