The climate as a dinner guest - NRC Guest Blog by Dr Sigrid Wertheim-Heck

Published on
April 5, 2019

NRC Guest Blog: This blog post is part of our new series of Dutch blog posts on important issues from the field of environmental policy on NRC online. You can find the original post (in Dutch) here.

Chefs who want to stimulate sustainability with a new, posh Dutch cuisine are in danger of alienating large groups of people. And yet these large numbers are needed to realise changes, writes consumer sociologist Sigrid Wertheim-Heck.

At the beginning of this year in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam the ‘Low Food’ movement was launched by trendy chefs who want to revive Dutch cuisine with extravagant dishes made with local products. Under the pretext of sustainability and with a reference to climate change, they want to do away with what they dramatically refer to as an ‘AGV’tje’ – a plate of potatoes, vegetables and meat.

It is certainly justifiable for food to play an important role in the climate discussion. One-third of all greenhouse gases emission is related to food, and one-fourth of all fossil fuel is used for food. But the question is whether dressing up Brussel sprouts and beets with refined restaurant formulas corresponds to daily practice. Who is willing to search high and low for oysters or a few leaves of kaffir lime?

There is a risk that large groups of people won’t feel involved in a culinary approach characterised by exotic and exclusive ingredients, complex recipes and French terms such as millefeuilles and tartelettes. The more exalted and inaccessible the views on sustainability, the more difficulty people will have in applying them to their daily lives, where the actual changes have to occur.


Climate policy creates social discord, as shown for example by the climate marches, the protests of the yellow vests or the Dutch provincial council elections. The question is what global goals mean in our daily lives. Can food bring us together to the climate table?

An ‘AGV’tje’ is a taste preference that can potentially activate change. What if we substitute the meat with a veggie burger and buy potatoes and vegetables grown on Dutch soil? Special offers from discounters, like the mashed potato casseroles from Lidl and special offers of meat substitutes from Aldi are just as important as developing complicated recipes with kohlrabi and oysters.

Sustainability issues are too important for normative coquetry. Transition should not be limited to a small vanguard. Not everyone has the same purse and possibilities to take the same large steps. Everyone should be able to participate, starting with his or her own plate. We should value practical points that don’t require far-reaching changes in daily life.

Sustainability already plays a role in many people’s lives, sometimes perhaps without people thinking about it or referring to it as such. Cooking economically by boiling potatoes or rice for a shorter time and then letting them steam; no longer driving to the supermarket but doing grocery shopping when you’re already out or going by bike; eating seasonal vegetables and not throwing away food – these are small but achievable steps.

Food consumption is part of our daily behaviour, but this daily perspective is insufficiently recognised in the climate discussion. Normal people who put a meal on the table every day and who prepare their food in a variety of ways – we have to recognise that human scale in our transition to a sustainable and healthy food system.

Study of eating patterns

How do diverse populations form sustainable and healthy consumer patterns? That question is the topic of a mutual study being done by the faculty of Environmental Policy at Wageningen University and the Food and Healthy Life research group at Aeres University of Applied Sciences.

Dutch agriculture offers more than the traditional potato, carrot and onion; it’s just as diverse as Dutch society. A migrant probably won’t add a Dutch mashed potato casserole to his menu, but perhaps he grows other sorts of courgettes with a positive effect on biodiversity. The researchers will interview various groups who reflect the cultural diversity of the Dutch population. They’ll speak with them, eat with them, and cook and do grocery shopping together.