Knock the Head off the pedestal and raise the Hand

December 22, 2021

A crucial moment for food science occurred 23 March 1886 when the student A.W. Smith entered a calorimeter, a device used to measure the combustive energy of engines. In the small room he studied academic treatises and lifted weights and ate measured quantities of bread, baked beans, potatoes and steak. Meanwhile, thermometers, hygrometers, condensers, fans and pumps measured what occurred.  Wilbur O. Atwater, a professor of chemistry at Wesleyan University with the help of fellow scientists Edward B. Rosa and Francis G. Benedict developed this ‘respiration calorimeter’ to measure precisely the energy provided by food and used by the human body for various activities. Based on this, Atwater created the system to measure that energy in units, known as calories. Finally, there was a common standard against which all foods could be measured.

Many today try to avoid calories, by ingesting low or no calorie food. In Atwater’s time the view on calories was different – they provided a scientific benchmark for feeding the masses. The calorie, Atwater declared, would determine “the food supply for the future”. With this physiological economy the minimum nutritional and energy needs could be determined for different social groups, taking into account their energy use and economic resources. The American government welcomed this new way of quantifying foods which made it possible to compare milk with meat or bread and thus substitute between them while still being able to satisfy basic nutritional demand. If workers could be fed scientifically the wages could be kept lower as there would be no wasteful consumption. The calorie became an important ally in the global expansion of American wheat, its primary export at this time. This went so far that the governor of Michigan, Chase Osborn, in 1920 proposed a system of international trade using the calorie as the currency. In 1925 the League of Nations established a global dietary standard of 2,500 calories for a laboring adult.*

We all know, by now, that calories are a very crude measure of the value of food and that comparing different foods based on their calorie contents is an exercise that may well lead you into eating disorders. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the calorie if one takes it for what it is. The problem is that the measure so often become proxy for a complex reality.

In the recent book Head, Hand and Heart David Goodhart** discuss how theoretical, academic knowledge (Head) has gained appreciation and status at the expense of technical, practical abilities (Hand), and social, cultural and emotional skills (Heart). His focus is the work place and how there has been a ”cognitive takeover that has gathered pace over the past forty years. As recently as the 1970s most people left school without qualifications, but now 40 per cent of all jobs are graduate-only. A good society must re-imagine the meaning of skilled work, so that people who work with their hands and hearts are valued alongside workers who manipulate data.”

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I believe there are many other analyses that could be enlightened by a Head, Hand and Heart perspective. I prefer to name all three categories as (different kinds of) knowledge, though.

Media and the public debate are obsessed with figures. In many debates proponents throw results of recent scientific reports at each other. New measures are invented to make simple calculations and comparisons possible. Today we talk about carbon dioxide equivalents as a universal measure of green house gas emissions, a unit that bundles highly variable gases with different properties and totally different origins into one measurement – it allows you to compare the climate impact of a wetland in Poland with the impact of a factory for the production of cell phones in China. I see an increasing flow of articles trying to develop an index for biodiversity to quantify the impact of an action on the incredible diverse web of life. It will allow you to, scientifically, compare the biodiversity impact of an off-shore wind turbine in the North Sea with the production of oats in Finland. In the next step measures and indexes are put into models which supposedly tells us how things are and could be. But all the assumptions and simplifications make the results quite meaningless.

The prevailing scientism is arrogant and tends to look only at what we “know” and disregard all that we don’t know. Most challenges of human civilization (today and earlier) are not met by the application of science alone, or in many cases not even predominantly. By putting too much attention to scientific measures and models, we tend to give too little attention to other perspectives. Certainly food is about a lot more than calories. To begin with there are many nutrients we need and then there is culture, economics, taste, etc. that will determine how and what we eat. And then there is the whole complex of bioavailability and the microbiome in our bodies, which to some extent determines if we will have any use of that we have ingested. Any food discourse that leaves out questions of power, status and access is incomplete.

A manifest example of how wrong it can be was the development of a planetary health diet by the Eat Lancet Commission, using a very limited set of scientific indicators – and models with a very limited number of assumptions – to determine a planetary diet that was supposedly good for both health and the planet.***

I believe we need to resurrect the Hand and the Heart in our world views, and knock the Head off the pedestal.

I am currently, together with my partner Ann-Helen, writing a book about humans, culture and nature and I am stricken by how dominating a narrow narrative of science is in when it comes to discussions about agriculture, conservation, ecosystems functions and forest management. The Heart has also some place in the debate, where people and cultural expressions refer to the soul of the living, the feelings of awe and wonder that fills you in a presumably wild landscape.

But the Hand is mostly absent; the people who are the actual managers of nature – the farmers, the fishermen, the pastoralists, the foresters, the hunters and gatherers – are not much heard. More often they are spoken about or told what to do by an urban middle class that have only a theoretical knowledge of topics they believe they understand better than those that are actually living in and of the landscapes in questions. Other parts of the same class have a very romantic view of the “sacredness of all life”, “Gaia” or similar admirable viewpoints, viewpoints that often give little guidance on how to farm, fish, log, hunt or pick mushrooms.

Of course, there is no reason to glorify those who deal with nature in their daily life. Also indigenous people have exterminated a lot of animal species, destroyed forests or in other ways overused resources. Farmers certainly have depleted water and soil resources, indiscriminately killed wild life and done a lot of harm. Nevertheless, the practical knowledge of the hands of the stewards of landscapes needs to be valued and respected. To that is also the realization that practical circumstances such as available technology and markets are determining their actions more than science (Head) or beliefs (Heart). Many farmers actually know quite well which practices that are ecologically sound, but as long as economic conditions and technology determine their choices, that knowledge is not put into action. Tragically, many farmers nowadays pay more attention to what they are told than their own experiences.

In addition, to spread, increase and value the knowledge of the Hand is central for a successful transformation of society – in the words of Rob Hopkins “the power of doing stuff”. The knowledge of the Hand will be much more needed in the future to come, as we need more Hands actively shaping the future. In addition, people growing, preparing, cooking and eating food, preferably together with others, are more likely to see through the illusions of the capitalist market economy and when science produce irrelevant results.

* The text about Atwater is found in my book Global Eating Disorder.

** David Goodhart reached fame in by the book the Road to Somewhere where he introduced the clssification of people in ‘Somewheres’ or the ‘Anywheres’.

*** On the EAT Lancet diet see e.g.:

Five dollars a day is not enough for five a day

Think inside the right box

Affordability of the EAT–Lancet reference diet: A global analysis


Teaser photo credit: Photo by Etty Fidele on Unsplash 

Gunnar Rundgren

Gunnar Rundgren has worked with most parts of the organic farm sector. He has published several books about the major social and environmental challenges of our world, food and farming.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, knowledges, Reskilling, scientism