Planetary Health – episode 3: The planet's general terms and conditions


With the return of neighbourhood gardens in cities and urban farming projects, the desire to retake control of how our food is produced is now being addressed. After all, in the opinion of many, there is nothing more valuable than what comes from their “own garden.” If the impact of human actions can be made tangible at an individual level, this may form the basis for promoting more responsible behaviour from the citizens of our planet.

When we come into this world, we do not sign terms and conditions to which we are bound. Nor do we receive an instruction manual on how to behave properly with guidance on how to consume environmental resources. Much of how we conduct ourselves is a question of the circumstances with which we are faced and the process of socialisation. The effect of finger pointing, bans or going without certain things remains limited when trying to ensure people act appropriately. When consumers become customers, the extent to which they identify with the product or service in question increases. As a member of society, the individual gives up personal rights in exchange for a sense of belonging and security. What if we were to extend this concept of belonging to the world’s population as a whole, applying it to the challenge of planetary health with all living beings? While this vision may seem very utopian, it could simultaneously be essential for the survival of our species and thus also the continued existence of others.

From measuring the world to programming it

The indescribable complexity and lack of order known as chaos can trigger a sense of powerlessness in many people. Any attempt to overcome this feeling with rational actions alone will fail. Scientific findings, especially when viewed as isolated facts, are for the most part only valid on a provisional basis. The measurement of the world culminated in disciplinary fragmentation in line with Descartes’ thinking and the Taylorisation of production processes in the form of a static division of labour. A system of strong regimentation threatens to end in rigidity. Automated thinking and the targeted emphasising of apparently observed interrelations create a simulation that both facilitates insights while limiting them at the same time. It is this construct that determines effectiveness. Targeted information sent to individuals by opinion-makers ensures that expected messages (I want to hear what fits my world view) are subtly reinforced, with our thinking and actions being programmed by social media. Critical thinking and reflection are threatened here, as many facts are generated to back up the desired opinion, serving to create resonance and defend positions.

Where humans have set out to become creators themselves through artificial intelligence and abolish doubt with respect to the application of rulebooks, individuality, uniqueness and self-determination prevail. Otherwise, there is a danger that machines will assume control and we will end up in a dystopia. A utopia, on the other hand, can evolve on the basis of foundations laid by overcoming the power to define hierarchies that were characterised by submissiveness, obedience and ritualism.

Being conscious requires becoming aware of interrelationships

Biological systems have always been complex. People try to deconstruct the connections that exist within them. In doing so, they run the risk of losing sight of the big picture. Seeking out these connections before observing, describing and examining them in their overall context is the challenge of our time. Nevertheless, respecting and taking account of the whole is perhaps postmodernism's last chance to better understand the challenges it is faced with, reverse the underlying issues and, where possible, initiate a process of regeneration. Seeing the big picture is a prerequisite for assuming responsibility as part of this.

From doers and knowledgeable prosumers to citizens of planet earth

Establishing value networks with diverse and inclusive procurement and processing structures promotes transparency, generates resilience and thus forms the basis for winning back trust.

The shift in food production from producers to consumers, its reintegration in the form of prosumers, the increasing gentrification and the role played by tourism and both digital and media networking are all essential factors in the creation of value networks.

Consumers are increasingly experiencing and recognising the interrelationships between biological systems through their own food production. This is evident in the renaissance of strategies for the preservation of food through fermentation. They thus become designers within the value networks. This doer movement is gathering experience and developing skills that allow people to produce food themselves and make qualified consumption decisions. Linked to this is an interest in better understanding how food is produced and questioning the often superficial nature of brand messages. Informed consumers who produce their own food thus become knowledgeable prosumers.

A longing for our own garden

With the return of neighbourhood gardens in cities and urban farming projects, the desire to retake control of how our food is produced is now being addressed. After all, in the opinion of many, there is nothing more valuable than what comes from their “own garden.” Regionality and seasonality, along with ethical requirements for food, have become very important criteria. In those areas where prosumers are not directly involved or able to look in, they expect reliable information. If the horizon can be broadened and the impact of human actions can be made tangible at an individual level, this may form the basis for promoting more responsible behaviour from the citizens of our planet.

Shared responsibility for food we can trust

The problem will continue to grow as long as we point the finger at others and in doing so give them the blame for the negative effects of food production. The environment and biodiversity should be viewed as inalienable common property. After all, what doesn't belong to anyone has no value, and what can be sold is subject to market forces. Life on our planet should not be left at the mercy of being in such a situation. Trading in environmental certificates shows just how dysfunctional the exchanging of anonymised emission quantities that cannot be assigned to individual products or manufacturing steps can be. An approach based on responsibility could work if we were to stop delegating it and compensating for it by transferring money. It would be more effective and meaningful to share this responsibility and assume it in the interest of as many as possible.

The possibility of replacing blame with responsibility will only exist if we succeed in creating transparency in a value network. Producing food responsibly for people and the environment will only be possible if the systems that have already been polluted or even destroyed are regenerated. In the agricultural sector, corresponding efforts are already underway to avoid or absorb climate-impacting factors and to take measures aimed at controlling water use and increasing biodiversity. Material cycles need to be investigated and understood before sustainable regeneration can take place. As effective as global initiatives may be, regenerative actions must also begin at a local level and generate an impact gradually.

Focussing too narrowly on primary production is a misguided approach. Regenerative concepts for processing and producing food must be identified decentrally and implemented in the sense of networks.

About the authors

Thinking and writing the unexpected is the motto of Gisela and Tilo Hühn, while their concept of life is underpinned by the endeavour to act responsibly together, adopt a reflective approach and make a difference. They work as researchers and lecturers at the ZHAW: Gisela Hühn as a member of the Food Process Development Research Group and Tilo Hühn as Head of the Centre for Food Composition and Process Design. Whether they are at the university or sat around their kitchen table, both enjoy joining forces or collaborating with others to discuss and work on future food systems and the question of how to get more of the goodness out of agricultural products during processing.

The Planetary Health series in the Impact web magazine

Can our planet still be saved? And if it can, how? These are the questions addressed in the new “Planetary Health” series of the ZHAW’s “Impact” web magazine. As the content of the series was not set in stone at the outset, you—our readers—also have the opportunity to shape the path it takes and the issues it covers by sharing your suggestions and wishes. In the opening episodes of the series, ZHAW researchers Gisela and Tilo Hühn explain how we can save the world with food. The insights the researchers provide are by no means a light bite. Instead, they serve up a feast of information, detailing what is wrong with our food system and what negative impacts it has on the environment. While they don't offer any guaranteed recipes for ensuring our planet’s recovery, they plate up morsels of knowledge and brain food aimed at promoting further thought and discussion. After all, “the battle to save the planet will be won at our dinner tables.” There is still a long way to go before we can sit back and enjoy a well-deserved dessert.

We look forward to receiving your ideas and suggestions at


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