Food is a complex topic. Research Professor Xavier Irz has studied food from many perspectives and still continues to find new, important research topics.
In the past… I am an economist but I ended up in that discipline somewhat by chance. When I was an undergraduate student in agricultural engineering, I was inspired by a couple of talks on international issues, such as the economics of developing countries. In my PhD I researched the role of agriculture in economic development.
I moved to Finland eight years ago and since then my research has focused on different themes. My main fields are sustainable food consumption and the functioning of Finnish food markets.
In the present… We are aware of the negative environmental effects of food. We also know about the health problems that poor diets can cause. I am trying to analyse why people choose the particular foods they eat. What are the drivers of those choices and of the resulting quality of diets? How could we steer people towards relatively more sustainable food consumption patterns?
A biologist is not going to start arguing with an astrophysicist, but the same thing does not apply when we are talking about food. Everybody thinks they are experts on food questions because everybody eats. The discussion rapidly becomes heated because the theme is so personal. This forces the researcher to be very clear about the evidence and its strength.
I think that, at the moment, many policies are lacking coherence. There is agricultural policy targeting farmers, health policy for consumers and environmental policy. We should take into account that all these things have influence on how people make dietary decisions.
In the future… There is a growing need for transparency and evidence in many discussions, and the subject of food is no exception. Luckily, in Finland policy makers and researchers have ongoing dialogue and new evidence is often taken into consideration in policy debates. I think that the situation is better than in France and the UK, where I have worked previously.
That being said, we still need more evaluation of policies to understand what works and what does not. For example, in Finland, the government has intermittently introduced taxes on sweets and other sugar-rich products, but we are still unsure about the consequences.
I would like to study new food product innovations by manufacturers and retailers, in particular, to assess the potential of such innovations for raising the sustainability of diets. I am interested in meat and dairy substitutes. There is a lot of talk about them, but it is not clear whether those products are a temporary fad or a clear sign that diets are shifting towards plant-based products. Digitalisation and big data are also opening up new exciting possibilities to study how markets function and how consumers behave.
Text: Silja Annila