Book Review: ‘Food’

There is a complexity and fragility of our global food system that is hard to comprehend for most of us in the Western world. When we walk into a supermarket we are spoilt for choice. We have pretty much anything and everything available to us in a convenient location, at an affordable price, at almost any time of the day, all year round. Sure, this has many perks and I’m guilty of taking it for granted just as much as the next person. But does anyone ever stop to pause for a moment and think about how that food has ended up on our shelves, and subsequent plates? The complete disconnect between what we eat and where it comes from is where Clapp begins, in her fascinating book, Food.

Akin to its title, Food unpacks the world food economy in a simple and concise manner. Clapp takes the reader on a journey through the forces that have shaped the global food economy, highlighting the significant impact these changes have brought upon nations, farmers, consumers and the environment.

Clapp covers everything from farm and agricultural subsidies, import and export tariffs, trade liberalisation, roles that international development agencies play in the global food economy and world trade rules such as the Agreement of Agriculture. Despite the heavy nature of some of these topics, the great thing about this book is that Clapp covers them in such an accessible way.

Food is vital for nourishment and our survival, yet food has been commodified and is traded on the world market like any other resource. One of the most fascinating parts is the comprehensive historical overview of agricultural trade policies which unveils why and how our world food economy is the way it is today. I want to share with you a simple summation of Clapp’s narrative on the unintended consequences of an unbalanced system.

Over the last century we have experienced a significant shift in the way we grow, produce and consume our food. The industrialised model of agriculture (think monoculture planting, chemical inputs such as pesticides, and GMOs including hybrid seeds) was championed in developed countries. Mass production of food ensued, inadvertently resulting in surpluses, culminating in rich countries looking for ways to ‘dispose’ of this excess food. This prompted new agricultural trade (and food aid) policies, which meant surpluses could be exported to those most in need at the time. More world trade rules were set, and trade liberalisation opened many new markets for rich countries. Subsequently, developing countries food imports increased, and so too did their dependency and reliance on newly acquired foods and tastes. In some instances local production also decreased. Now throw in food price spikes and market volatility (which is linked to the finalicialisation of food, also analysed by Clapp), developing countries suddenly struggled to afford food imports due to skyrocketing prices. The social consequences that have resulted from large scale, export oriented industrial agriculture, are enormous. The food security risks for many countries in this scenario are incomprehensible. International agricultural trade and food aid policies have in many ways, been tied to rising global hunger which is inequitable and unjust.

Food outlines how government bodies, private foundations, financial actors, transnational corporations (TNCs), investors and traders, have established new rules, practices and norms which have shaped the world food economy. These big players have significant power and heed a certain amount of control in the global food system, leaving little for the farmers and consumers.

It’s not all doom and gloom, although it can certainly feel like it at times. The book finishes on a positive note and demonstrates how there has been an emergence of movements to challenge the dominant global food system. Ecological and social movements have the possibility to transform the world food economy, affirms Clapp. Additionally, producers and consumers also have a role in shaping the future of the global food economy, along with political and economic actors. Possible options for an alternative food system are explored including, Fairtrade, food justice and food sovereignty.

If you consider yourself a concerned citizen, food activist, or just someone who wants a greater understanding of their food and where it comes from, then this book is for you. I was fortunate enough to access Food through my local library – you should check out if you can too. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear what you thought of it.

Serving up sustainability on a plate

Please bear with me for a moment. I’m going to throw two questions at you and I want you to take some time to think through them, if only for a few seconds.

The first question is, do you think you eat healthy?

It’s a broad question I know. And the way you answer it will depend on a number of things. Do you know what eating for health looks like? What do you believe constituents a healthy ‘diet’? Where do you access your information on nutrition and health? Is good health something you value? Is eating healthy important to you?

If you answered no, what is stopping you? Do you aspire to eating healthier but find it hard due to various factors such as time, cost, access, availability, taste etc.? What if it was easier to do so? What if the default option was a healthy choice?

Globally, countries develop dietary guidelines and national food guides to help inform the general population on what encompasses a healthy diet. This is informed by rigorous scientific research and the latest evidence. When Australia updated their dietary guidelines in 2011 (released in 2013) it was based on a report that compiled 55,000 pieces of peer-reviewed scientific literature and a comprehensive food modelling system. The role of the dietary guidelines is to provide official evidence based information and advice on what to eat for good health. The guidelines then underpin interventions and policy development and ideally, should be widely disseminated to the public.

Based on this, a healthy diet is one that is high in fruit and vegetables and wholegrain cereals, has moderate amounts of reduced fat milk and dairy products and meat, fish, chicken, eggs, legumes/beans and nuts and seeds and minimal amounts of processed foods which are high in fat, salt and sugar.

And here’s the second question, do you think you eat sustainably?

Once again, the way you answer will depend on various things. What is your understanding of a sustainable diet? How important is it to you that what you eat has minimal impact on the environment? If you knew the answers to these questions, would you prioritise the environment over things like taste, convenience and cost?

A sustainable diet is defined by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as “[t]hose diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimising natural and human resources”.

In short, we know that there are some foods or farming practices that use a lot of energy, water and land, have a high ecological impact and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Meat and dairy carry a high environmental footprint, processed foods are resource heavy, and a red flag is also being waved for many fish stocks.

Are you still with me? I’m sure for some of you making choices about what you eat for environmental reasons may be a new concept and not one you’re really ready to consider.

What if I told you that a healthy diet actually aligns with a sustainable diet? The Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation (BCFN) created the food and environment double pyramid which demonstrates what a nutritionally sound diet is alongside one that has minimal environmental impact. You can check out the double pyramid here. The Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) is also doing a great deal of work in this area and outlines characteristics of a diet that is good for health and the planet. What these both show, is that health promoting foods are also the ones that have little impact on the environment.

It’s clear that the evidence is mounting on what a healthy and sustainable diet is, yet government action is slow. Some countries have started incorporating sustainability into their food based dietary guidelines as a way of informing people about what a sustainable diet looks like. Sweden, Brazil, Qatar and Germany are trail blazing with forward thinking governments, highlighting integrated dietary approaches that align healthy diets with those that have less environmental impact. You can check out a good summary of their recommendations here.

Both Australia and the United States tried to integrate sustainability messages into the most recent update of their national dietary guidelines. There were quite a lot of similarities across both countries so I’m going to briefly surmise the process and outcome.  Both appointed an official group of experts to lead the process. Both compiled the latest evidence available and released extensive reports. Both acknowledged the links between health and the environment and sustainability recommendations were included in the draft report.  A consultation process with the public then ensued. There was considerable backlash from many groups, notably industry, and both countries removed sustainability from their dietary guidelines (note: it is mentioned in the Appendix of Australia’s final report).  A clear message emerged. Sustainability was outside the scope of dietary guidance and the focus should remain on nutrition and health.

I am well aware that aligning health and environmental objectives presents many challenges and here are some of them:

  1. Australian’s on average, eat a lot of meat. The OECD figures tell us that as a whole, the average Australian consumed 93 kilograms of meat in 2013 (interestingly ranked higher than the United States). This is a lot of meat. It could be reasonable to say that as a nation, we have a deep seeded history and culture with eating meat. The good news is that there is a lot of room for improvement.
  2. In 2015 Australia’s number one agricultural export was beef.  As incomes rise in developing countries, these emerging economies are adopting Western-style diets and increasingly consuming more meat and dairy Therefore, a huge market is opening up for countries like Australia who have a thriving livestock industry. This presents us with enormous economic implications at a national level if (when?) consumers embrace more plant based diets.
  3. We know that information alone doesn’t change behaviour. There is so much information (and misinformation) out there about healthy eating, and yet diet-related diseases are on the rise, particularly overweight and obesity. Would including sustainability in our national food guide change people’s behaviour? Probably not. But what it does say is that our government takes the issue seriously and is committed to doing something about it. And as I highlighted earlier, dietary guidelines underpin program and policy development which has far reaching implications for our food system.
  4. The food industry are powerful players and we know they hold a lot of sway when it comes to influencing governmental decisions that potentially affect their profit margins.
  5. Lastly, while I sit here and advocate for change, I’m mindful of the farmers who make a living from farming cattle. Including sustainability messages in dietary guidelines, will inevitably, have a knock on effect for them. We need to be coming up with solutions to these potential social and economic issues, because maintaining our production and consumption patterns is undeniably, unsustainable.

The challenges are great, but the risks are greater. Once again, I want you to take a few moments to ponder this.

What if we approached things a little differently? What if instead of trying to change knowledge, attitudes and beliefs around sustainability, we made it easier for people to make the necessary changes? What if we built a structure that enabled everyone to live a healthy and sustainable life? This is where food policy change is integral in creating environments that promote and support individual and ecological health. This would mean radical changes – but isn’t that what we need?

One thing we know for certain is that the planet’s resources are finite. Yet we live and consume in a way that takes little regard for them. It’s time to deliver integrated guidance and embed health and sustainability goals. It’s time to nurture an essential shift in what, and how we eat. It’s time our government committed to a healthy, sustainable and fair future. It’s time for shared policy frameworks that address health, the environment, social and economic objectives together. It’s time for an overarching body that looks at the entire food and farming system as a whole, and not just in silos. Whose with me on this?

Connecting the dots on a joined up food policy

There have been many calls to action in the past few months for integrated food policy. Harvard has just released a Blueprint for National Food Strategy, which provides a plan for action for creating a national food strategy in the US. The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems are undertaking a three year process of research, reflection and citizen engagement to determine what a Common Food Policy looks like in the EU.

So what is a joined up food policy? Why do I care about it? And why should we have one? You see the thing with food policy is that it affects us all. Our survival depends on food and for this reason it’s integral that we have policies in place that preserve that survival. The challenge is that food policy is not solely concerned with ensuring we all have safe and adequate food available to us at an affordable price. If it was, then the food policies we have currently are sufficiently doing their job because most of us in Australia are food secure and have access to plentiful food which is reasonably priced. (Note: while the majority of Australian’s may experience a high level of food security, one in twenty adults reported they had gone without food in the previous 12 months at the time of the last national health survey, and one in five Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experienced food insecurity in 2012-13).

Yet consumption is only one piece of the pie. As you can see above, the food system comprises every process from “paddock to plate” or “farm to fork”. Therefore food policy is concerned with policies that affect production, processing, transport, trade, consumption and waste.

One of the great challenges is that the government departments who are responsible for policies to do with food sit in silos independently of each other and have their own policy priorities. The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources develops and implements policies that foster competitive, profitable and sustainable agricultural, food, fishing and forestry industries. Its policy priorities include facilitating agricultural productivity alongside increasing trade and market access, while ensuring sustainable resource management. The Department of Environment and Energy develops and implements policies to protect and conserve the environment, water and heritage and promote climate action. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is responsible for providing advice on trade, foreign and development policy to government. One of their trade priorities is to pursue further trade liberalisation. The Department of Health is responsible for health policies that promote good nutrition and the prevention of chronic disease.

I have merely provided a snapshot of some of the many government departments who have policies in place that affect who eats what, when, how and with what consequences (Lang et al, 2009). However, it’s clear that priorities are widespread and diverse. From environmental and economic, to health and social – is one more important that the other? Should some priorities take precedence over others?

Currently it is fair to say that a macroeconomic lens frames the development of a lot of food policy in Australia. The National Food Plan which was developed in 2013 (and was subsequently archived when the Liberal National Party took over the seat of power), was Australia’s most recent attempt at a joined up food policy. It had four policy priorities and boosting agricultural productivity and expanding exports globally were paramount to the plan. For a fantastic overview of the history, development and key priorities of Australia’s Food Plan, I recommended checking out pages 79-82 in the Blueprint for a National Food Strategy.

It’s important to acknowledge that the image presented above is an extremely simplistic representation of a complex process. Food policy is often referred to as contested space and is as much about the actions of governments as it is the inactions (Harper et al, 2009). The interactions that take place between state, supply chain and civil society actors set the stage for the production of food policy. Just like actors on the big screen, they all play their own part, some of whom receive more of the limelight and accolades than others. These actors play a key role in food governance and their level of power and influence in contributing to the policy direction varies considerably dependent on a number of factors. It’s been highlighted elsewhere that supply chain actors possess a lot of power in the policy making process (Carey et al, 2015) and greatly influence how policy is formed beyond the state (Cullerton et al, 2016).

As you can see, food policy is multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary which makes coordination complex. Yet this fragmented approach often results in dealing with issues in isolation without looking at the bigger picture. While agriculture provides food, it is also a major contributor to greenhouse gases, agrochemical pollution, biodiversity loss and soil degradation. Despite the presence of a safe and abundant food supply in Australia, approximately 31 per cent of the burden of disease is largely attributed to preventable diet related diseases that cost in excess of $27 billion, 36 per cent of the national budget expended on health. Climate change presents a significant challenge for Australia’s food supply. Many are concerned that climate change will negatively impact agricultural production, thus future export growth, resulting in economic implications nationally, highlighting the externalised costs of food policy.

The need for a joined up food policy is emphasised by the necessity to control and reduce the incidence of diet related diseases, alongside delivering an environmentally sustainable food system that fosters social inclusion; while at the same time retaining a viable industry which includes trade, production, agriculture, distribution and manufacturing. One way of doing this is to establish a lead agency that coordinates the development of national food policy. This was attempted for the National Food Plan; however, representation was grossly inadequate and limited to 13 members. The Blueprint for a National Food Strategy highlights the need for a principal agency to manage engagement and action, and coordinate the enormous task of integrating environmental, health, social and economic goals. I believe that if a national food advisory council was established it could frame policy options in a more integrated fashion to contribute to a healthy, equitable, economically viable and resilient food system . Certainly it’s time that we connected the dots.

What do you think would work?  Let me know in the comments below.

It’s a fizzer – government rejects tax on sugary drinks

Taste the feeling. You can visualise it can’t you? That iconic bottle of fizz. It provides so much more than just an ability to quench ones thirst. It provides happiness, joy, sexiness…. but wait? Does it really? The psychology applied to marketing soft drink is fascinating and mind blowing. The manufacturers sell us a certain ‘lifestyle’ and they do it very effectively through getting to the core of our emotions. We are led to believe that our lives will be extraordinarily better when we drink one of their beverages. But are they really?

In Australia currently, two in three adults, and one in four children are overweight or obese. The Australian Health Survey conducted in 2011-12 found that one in three adults consumed sugar-sweetened beverages in the 24 hours prior to the survey. The good news is that consumption of these beverages has decreased over the past two decades; however, sugary drinks are still consumed in significant quantities by a large part of the population, including people who experience greater social disadvantage and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

I acknowledge that sugary drinks are only part of the problem when it comes to Australia’s burgeoning waistline. In fact, some have estimated it to contribute about ten percent to obesity rates. However, there is no denying that the consumption of energy dense foods and drinks contributes to the rising trend of preventable chronic disease, which is placing huge costs on individuals and to society as a whole.  So what can we do about it?

When presented with the facts, which the Grattan Institute report does so well, taxing sugary drinks (or sugar-sweetened beverages) seems like a desirable policy option to curb this trend. Recouping some of the third party costs associated with obesity would be one of the main purposes of the tax. Reducing consumption of sugary drinks is also an intended goal, since it’s been shown that price can effectively leverage how much sugary drinks people consume.

The evidence around taxing sugary drinks is not new. WHO released a comprehensive report in 2015 highlighting that consumption of sugary drinks would decrease following an introduction of policies that lead to at least a 20% increase in the retail price. Many countries are already taking this approach to positively influence health, including Mexico, Barbados, Chile, UK and France and some parts of the US. This is a significant step, and encouraging to see governments utilise taxation and subsidy strategies to address this global issue.

In Australia, the Obesity Policy Coalition (which comprises 100 of Australia’s prominent health researchers from 53 organisations), recently released a comprehensive policy brief outlining a 47 point plan to tackle obesity. Nationally, implementing a health levy on sugar-sweetened drinks was one of the priority policy recommendations to tackle obesity and create healthier food environments. However, it’s clear our government believes it’s doing enough to address obesity and that taxing sugary drinks is not an option worth considering.

A common theme that comes through again and again when we have this debate is that people should take personal responsibility for what they eat and drink. The Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) are strong advocates for this approach, which was highlighted again when the sugar tax was discussed in the media recently.

The AFGC are the peak body representing the food manufacturing sector in Australia. They are a powerful player in the food system and utilise various strategies to influence policy both internally and externally. One of the great challenges with getting taxation strategies over the line in Australia is dealing with these powerful players.

Managing public outcry is also a significant challenge. Whenever changes like these are proposed there is a belief that the government is being overprotective or interfering excessively. For those people, I ask you to reflect. Did you also feel this way about the changes to tobacco policy? When does something have to become so iniquitous to one’s health, that we invest in preventative measures for the sake of the entire population?

In a world where there is cheap food, and lots of it (for a significant part of the population), they are left to grapple with so many external forces that leaving it up to an individual could be seen as personal liability. And yet for others improving the environment in which we live and making it easier for people to choose healthier choices is indisputable. Sadly, a thriving market economy is not the answer to combating the obesity crisis in Australia. We need a multifaceted approach and taxation and subsidy strategies are part of that approach.

Where do you draw the line? What do you see as suitable options for the government to regulate and when do you feel is it totally unacceptable?

Why does food end up in your trolley?

Food – it’s pretty important right? Without it we literally could not survive. It’s pretty morbid when we put it like that but it’s true. However, food is so much more than fuel for our bodies. It unites us in so many ways. It’s the social thread of our lives. We enjoy meals with our families, BBQs and picnics with friends, lunches shared with colleagues or our children. Culturally it plays such a central role in celebrations, and a huge part in many religions.

Food brings joy. We eat it. We share it. We discuss it. We savour it. However, not everyone feels this way about food. There may be some who obsess over it. Calculate it. Restrict it. Everywhere we look we’re told not to eat this, or that. It can be so confusing!

Food connects us to the earth. For Indigenous people in particular, traditional foods provide a strong link to country. Yet for most of us who live in cities far removed from the rural landscape where our food is grown and produced, we may not give this a second thought as we throw food into the trolley.

In fact, for many of us, food is something we may not give a lot of thought to. Sure, some of us may choose foods for their nutritional qualities. Some of us may think we’re choosing foods for their health benefits but may simply be influenced through what is being marketed as healthy.

Some may choose foods because they’re better for the environment. Many people opt to be vegetarian or vegan for environmental or even ethical reasons. In fact, environmental factors played a big part in why I chose to be vegetarian ten years ago. We may base our food selections on things like Fairtrade? Or Australian made? Or GMO free?

For many the choice simply comes down to price and/ or what’s available to us. I’m sure there are numerous more reasons for why food goes into your trolley – convenience, taste, organic, meeting the needs of family members, what you can access at the time, allergies, brand loyalty, locally grown, free range etc.

What about social reasons? Does it bother us that the farmers who produce our food get a fair price? I remember feeling dismayed watching the dairy crisis unfold last year in Australia. For many, the reductions to the farm gate milk price by processors Murray Goulburn and Fonterra, was a huge blow. I watched on as struggling dairy farmers were forced to sell off their prized dairy cattle just to break even. Many became beholden to the milk processors because they back dated when the amended farm gate price was to be applied. How does this happen? Does this seem fair to you? It certainly didn’t to me. I remember thinking that surely there was something I could do to help farmers ensure they were paid fairly for all their hard work. I read a lot about the the events that preceded the crisis and Choice provided an excellent summary at the time. For me it was about making a conscious decision to purchase a milk brand that supported its farmers and that they were paid a fair price for their commodity.

Conscious, that’s an interesting word. How many of us consciously think about what we’re buying, or even eating for that matter? Should we? Who has time to think about what they put in their trolley? I’d like to think I’m a conscious consumer but after the milk crisis I started to scrutinise my own purchasing habits.

According to various reports, one of the most influential factors for consumers at the supermarket is price. Taste and convenience also feature quite highly. I totally get that. I’m influenced by all three factors one way or another when I buy my groceries They’re not the only things that I act on, and I’m thankful for that, but I can’t deny they don’t feature. Health is definitely another one, and the environment another, but I honestly think most of my shopping is done on autopilot listening to the cheesy music played through the supermarkets speakers.

Am I the only one who thinks this deeply about the shopping decision I make?  I’m intrigued, what influences you at the supermarket?  Why does food end up in your trolley?