IT'S hard to believe that we're on the cusp of the new year. Of course, that means all sorts of predictions about what's in store for the coming year.
That generally takes the form of lists. There are now umpteen lists of top-10 things to watch for in 2014. (But without them, what else would we have to focus on amidst a slow news cycle during the holidays?)
Within that general theme, I'm certain readers have stumbled across all sorts of articles about food. They read something like, "Top Chefs on 2014 Food Trends," or "Eat This List: 2014 Food Trend Predictions." The various accounts seemingly never end.
What's always puzzling about all these types of columns, articles and commentary is that they never really predict anything new. Rather, they typically just portend what's already occurring.
For example, is the observation that "customers are demanding more transparency" (or something to that effect) really a new revelation about the food industry?
That's just simply not a meaningful news flash for those of us connected to the food world on a daily basis. Just once, it'd sure be refreshing to forego those various lists. After all, none of them really come to fruition; most of them merely morph from one year into the next.
Let's just acknowledge that the big themes within the food industry that are already occurring will continue to dominate much of what we do.
You know that emphases such as locally raised food and industry transparency will expand; meanwhile, the drumbeat out there regarding the agriculture and food industries being too big or industrialized won't diminish in 2014 (although that's almost so obvious it's funny — and it reminds me of Johnny Carson's hilarious Carnac the Magnificent skits).
Nevertheless, that reality does call attention to the seeming tension that exists about views on food in our society.
On one hand, in the course of our busy, hectic lives, food can readily assume a very utilitarian role. We simply make pit stops to refuel our bodies, never slowing down to think about our unprecedented access to a safe, abundant, wholesome food supply; it has just always been there when we want it.
On the other hand, though, food has incredible connotations. It represents something that goes far beyond its job of providing sustenance. That is because food is never just food.
For example, consider the social connectedness that gets tied to food, such as family gatherings, civic or church potlucks and tailgating.
Whatever the occasion might be, somehow, in some way, food is typically involved, and because of the inherent emotion, sense of belonging and even our identity that go along with all that, food takes on added significance in our lives. That reality is especially captured by the very essence of the term "comfort food."
So, that's often what makes all of these conversations so difficult. Our culture is getting ever more stretched between this seeming dichotomy surrounding food. Moreover, that's probably true for each of us individually.
Nonetheless, what we see and hear in the media are the extremes of the pendulum (e.g., fast versus "slow" food), with little conversation about something more in the middle.
As a parent who also works in the food business, one external observation might be fitting here. Maybe none of this broader discussion is really about food. The agriculture and food industry doesn't cause cultural change; rather, it's the other way around.
Perhaps much of the conversation that takes place about food is really more about cultural trends and values; it has just all gotten inappropriately transposed to the food and agriculture industry. That's probably a discussion for another day.
What's in store for 2014? Keep up the predictions; there's never a good answer to that question. What's more important is whether we're asking the right questions.
On a lighter note, if you really need an answer, just rest assured that 2014 will likely "be the same ... only different." Happy New Year!
*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.