Fit and not fat: what the Welsh government can do

By Steve Garrett, Chair, Riverside Market Garden, Cardiff

In considering how to best influence consumption patterns of unhealthy food products in Wales, motivated by the need to reduce the health costs and impacts which are now understood to result from an overconsumption of those products (sugar is now viewed by many health professionals as the biggest avoidable public health risk, and the ‘new nicotine’), useful lessons can be learned from the way in which cigarette purchases have been reduced by state sponsored initiatives.

High levels of taxation combined with public education campaigns and banning of advertising, labelling and packaging has succeeded in seriously reducing levels of tobacco consumption. More recently, the invention and rapid rise in the popularity of artificial cigarettes has also helped many people to kick what is essentially an addiction.

(It’s interesting to imagine whether a substitute junk food could be artificially created, which would satisfy our cravings for salt, sugar and fat, without actually delivering those health damaging substances to us. Someone in a food lab somewhere is probably working on it.)

Growing vegetables for urban markets

Growing vegetables for Cardiff

There are a range of “enabling health” approaches to changing food consumption behaviour which may be considered, such as: subsidising the cost of healthy food to make it more affordable to people on low incomes; launching a healthy eating promotional campaign; providing and promoting “healthy options” in state run locations such as schools and health centres; making healthy food easily available to all sectors of the community, particularly to those on lower incomes, with measures such as “healthy corner shops” (encouraging corner shops to stock a range of fresh produce) to ensure that even in relative “food deserts” some healthy food is available; providing cooking classes and nutritional information at a community level. But without making healthy food more affordable, any attempt to promote its consumption amongst poorer sections of the community is likely to fail.

More directly ‘Interventionist’ measures can include: adding a “sugar tax, or “fat tax” to products with unhealthily high levels of those ingredients, such as fizzy soft drinks (which are the main source of processed sugar for young people) or high-fat food items; nutrient fortification in low-cost food; banning processed food in government-controlled environments such as schools, and health centres; putting discouraging labelling on processed food and controlling the kind of packaging that can be used; banning or limiting advertising of unhealthy food, especially to children. One or more of these measures are currently being considered, or are being trialled in several countries in spite of concerted opposition from the financially powerful manufacturers of the products most affected. However there is deep disagreement about the effectiveness of such measures. (1); (2).

A major difficulty, in addition to any costs involved, in implementing any steps in relation to reducing consumption of ‘empty calorie’ food, is that it is not as easily connected in the public’s mind as tobacco with negative heath implications, in site of the declarations of health experts. The huge lobbying power of the manufacturers, many of which, such as Coca-Cola, number amongst the largest businesses in the world, also means that these companies can exert huge financial pressure in attempting (and in many cases succeeding) to influence the shaping of food policy, by offering direct funding to government, and also by supporting a range of e.g. sports activities which are welcomed by local communities, and by funding organisations and individuals that are willing to oppose such a move, as well as sponsoring expensive campaigns to discredit any attempts to limit their immensely profitable sales. (It is only the amoral attitude of such corporations that can explain the absurdity of Coca Cola and MacDonald’s being the primary sponsors of the 2012 London Olympic. Echoing the well established behaviour of oil companies in trying to discredit research on the effects on global warming of burning fossil fuels).

Another factor is the limited public appetite for having their food buying behaviour “controlled” or “censored” by government, which in spite of ostensibly good intentions, is felt to be an unwelcome form of meddling in people’s freedom to choose what to buy and consume.

I believe that a combination of health promoting and interventionist measures will be most effective in steering people away from ‘junk’ and unhealthy food. Alongside attempts to reduce empty calorie consumption, measures are needed which will promote and increase the availability of, and access to, healthy food options for all parts of the community. This will require a multilevel approach, including actions like exposing young people to healthy food in schools and public places, and supporting the creation of a local food ‘chain’ which will make fresh local food easily and affordably available, Such measures will require investment of public money and a willingness to resist the opposition of multinationals, but as has been seen with tobacco, such moves are possible and can be effective where the political will is there. And unlike smoking reduction, which is restricted to limiting consumption of something harmful, promoting healthy eating and local food production will deliver twin long-term benefits of improving the health of the population, thus reducing the cost of providing the health service, at the same time as delivering a range of environmental benefits, and supporting the development of a local food economy creating investment and employment.

All these approaches can and must be taken in Wales by our national government, and, with their support, local governments, and should be included in the development of a ‘Food Manifesto’ for Wales (3) The wide range of positive outcomes they imply should make the investment of public money in creating a localised food system more popular with the general public and thus more politically palatable. The only thing standing in the way of such moves would be a lack of vision and courage on the part of Welsh Government. If our political representatives are not able to fulfil their duty of care by promoting and facilitating healthy eating and taking a stand against the corporations who benefit from the current health-damaging and unsustainable food system, it is up to campaigners and the rest of us to respond appropriately at the ballot box at the forthcoming Welsh Government elections.

(1) http://www.iea.org.uk/blog/denmark%E2%80%99s-fat-tax-disaster-the-proof-of-the-pudding

(2) http://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/nov/03/obese-soda-sugar-tax-mexico

(3) https://foodmanifesto.wales/

Talking to the politicians

This article by Jane Powell appeared in the Daily Post on 1 October 2015

Next year, Wales gets the chance to have a new government. What would you like the politicians to campaign for in the run-up to May’s elections?

A group of food researchers are working on a manifesto that will tell them what sort of food system the people of Wales want to see in future, and we would like to hear what you care about.

Food touches every area of our lives. Take food waste, for instance. UK supermarkets run on a system where in order to keep the shelves fully stocked with fresh food, a high proportion of perfectly good food is routinely thrown away.

Action is being taken by the likes of FareShare Cymru to distribute the surplus food, but maybe it’s time for more drastic action.

In France, supermarkets are obliged to give their unsold food to charities or for animal feed, and are banned from throwing it away. Should we try that here?

Most of us waste at least some food at home, too. Maybe we bought too much. The government cannot do much about that, but how about more cookery lessons in schools and in the community to encourage people to prepare healthy meals, and to rediscover the pleasures of eating together?

There is increasing interest in growing our own food, too. But in Wales there are very few skilled horticulturists, and we end up importing most of our fruit and vegetables, even those which could easily be grown here.

This is a complex problem, one worth tackling by government.

Welsh agriculture is central to the food system of course, and it’s important to sort out our policy on land use. Do we farm for export markets, or for home consumption, or a bit of both?

What do we want our farmland to do? Grow food, encourage wildlife, prevent flooding, look beautiful and attract tourists? Government policy has a major role to play here, through subsidies and other forms of support.

Government can also affect markets, for instance by requiring local authorities and other public sector organisations to make it easier for Welsh food businesses to supply schools, hospitals, prisons and so on.

Do we want to serve more local food in school meals?

Do we want to serve more local food in school meals?

It might cost a bit more than imported food, but then it also gives farming a boost. Which do we want to see?

And then there’s the question of food banks. Last year’s All Party Parliamentary Inquiry report, Feeding Britain, found that more and more people are turning to emergency food aid: wages are low, social networks are weak and the food system is no longer resilient enough. What are we going to do about that?

Partly it’s a problem of poverty, and partly it’s about the food system itself, which delivers high quality fresh food to some, while others live in “food deserts” where it is hard to find fresh produce, and shops stock highly processed, fat- and sugar-laden products.

Fundamentally, it is a question of how we value our food, and that comes down to how we see our society and the environment.

In a recent research study led by Aberystwyth University, we shared meals with refugees in Cardiff and pensioners in Gwynedd, as well as schoolchildren, students, organic farmers and many others.

They all discussed how food connects them with family and friends, and how they wanted to see the best quality food available to everyone.

They wanted to see food skills being passed down the generations. They thought it mattered where food comes from – that it shouldn’t be an anonymous commodity, and that the person who grew it got a fair price.

Our food system doesn’t quite work like that at the moment, but it could.

It’s time to ask for change from our government, and it’s time to make changes ourselves. Start growing in your back garden. Join a community garden. Seek out food in the shops that fits with your values – animal welfare, local, organic, as it may be – and be prepared to pay a little more for it.

Find another way altogether of buying it, perhaps through a veg co-op or farmers market. Try out a new recipe and visit a food festival this autumn. Organize a community meal at your church, mosque, school or workplace. Donate some high quality food to your nearest food bank.

And write in to the Food Manifesto. It’s at http://foodmanifesto.wales and http://maniffestobwyd.cymru.

Food: A conversation we can all take part in

By Rosa Robinson (published in the Western Mail & Wales Online 27 August 2015)

I wouldn’t describe myself as a food expert or an environmentalist. But I am worried that our food system is making us ill, that it’s harming nature, and that the most vulnerable people in society are the worst affected.

I’m troubled by the increase in diet-related illnesses (NHS data analysed by Diabetes UK reveals that diabetes had increased by almost 60% in the decade since 2005) and the increase in malnourishment, often going hand-in-hand with obesity.

I think it’s scandalous that people living in the UK—the 4th richest country in the world—are going hungry while food goes to waste. (The UK is the biggest producer of waste in the EU, throwing away over 14 million tonnes per year).

And I’m concerned that the way we’re producing food is compromising the earth’s capacity to provide us with food in the future.

The truth is that a lot of the food we eat is unhealthy, damaging to the environment, cruel to animals, and unfair to workers it depends on. It’s wasteful and unsustainable.

We need to change the way our food system works. We’re beginning by gathering opinions and experiences from people across Welsh society—academics, businesses and community groups—and we are identifying a list of practicable actions that government can take to support social, economic and environmental equity, through food. We’re writing a food manifesto for Wales.

By ‘we’ I mean a small but growing network of people who think sustainable food is important, and are contributing the time and skills needed to get the food manifesto idea off the ground.

The manifesto isn’t funded and isn’t owned by any particular person or organisation. That’s intentional – we want the manifesto to be developed collaboratively, with people working across society.

What should the Food Manifesto contain? The proposals in Professor Kevin Morgan’s recently published paper, Good Food For All provide an excellent place to start. The paper emphasises the importance of expertise in sustainable public procurement. It identifies the importance of the public purse in delivering value in its broadest sense—i.e. community benefit, training, jobs and other sustainability goals. And it recognises the importance of making ‘good food’ highly visible in the public sector by demonstrating commitment through a credible and recognised catering mark like Food For Life.

What should be included in a food manifesto doesn’t sound much like a dinner table discussion. It’s unlikely that deliberations about food systems, sustainability and ethics often seem relevant to everyday life—not when you’re trying to get dinner on the table for a hungry family—but it’s still vital that the significance of food at a family, neighbourhood and community level is addressed in any food manifesto that is written.

It’s vital because what matters to people – what people value – drives change.

There is substantial research from social psychology and other disciplines, which explains how values work. Values shape our identity and our society. Values influence what we do and how we feel. They connect people and issues. (If you’re interested in finding out more it’s worth looking up Common Cause).

Earlier this year I did a social research project, talking to people living in some of Wales’ least affluent communities about what food means to them. It means family. It means comfort. It’s a celebration. It’s an important part of culture. It’s about sharing with friends and neighbours. It’s about trust, fairness and friendship; it means home. It means nurturing and nourishing the people you love. It means the same things to them as it does to me, but we don’t often have these conversations about food or connect to that deeper meaning—the things we really value.

Food isn’t just a commodity. It brings families, friends and communities together. It connects us with the nature. It provides comfort and security. It builds skills, confidence and feelings of self worth. It increases resilience. These things make people thrive.

Food unites us. It’s a conversation everyone can take part in, and talking about food is how we can make sustainable development meaningful and relevant across society. By finding common ground and shared values we can build a collective commitment to creating a fair food system. This is what the Food Manifesto is all about.

Rosa Robinson is Director of the Work With Meaning Community Interest Company www.workwithmeaning.org.uk

Defining the boundaries

By Dr Jane Ricketts Heinmountains of Cynidr Consulting, Powys: Rural research, specialising in society, agriculture, the environment and (of course) food.

A Food Manifesto for Wales has the potential to address some particularly complicated, ambitious, important and, quite frankly, difficult issues.  At least, it could do – and probably will have to, if it is to achieve meaningful change.

Following the interesting and valuable discussions at the “Food, Values, Fairness” workshop in Cardiff in June, I would like to highlight three related subjects, all linked to how we define the boundaries of ‘food’.

  1. We need to include more farmers in the conversation. Many (perhaps most) farmers are not particularly ‘growing food’, they are ‘producing commodities’ and, entirely reasonably, are more concerned about global market prices for their ‘products’ than local values – even if they are sympathetic to many of the aims that workshop participants discussed.  I feel that many of the debates around ‘local’ and quality food started too far along the food chain – with the community or individual rather than when the seed reaches the ground or while the animals are grazing (or even before this, but taking on the agricultural inputs industry may be a step too far at this stage).  Starting with the consumer is understandable as, generally, we can only take action where we are – and few of us are farmers, but we are all eaters!  However, farmers are key people if this is to be an all-encompassing food manifesto.  This would mean engaging with (or challenging or changing perhaps) the attitudes of a range of well-funded organisations, including agro-chemical companies, the main farming unions, the mainstream farming press, corporate retailers, government (at a variety of different scales), the training establishments and most of the farmers themselves who get their information from these bodies.
  2. We need to talk to the trainers. The need for training was often mentioned, but mainstream agricultural and horticultural methods appear to take precedence in many of the existing training opportunities.  ‘Alternative’ modules and courses could be presented alongside more mainstream topics, and given equality in their promotion.  Examples of such topics occur throughout the food system, including production methods such as organic, permaculture, no-till agriculture and even ‘natural’ beekeeping techniques, along with innovative business and marketing models, such as Community Supported Agriculture, co-operatives and micro-businesses, before we get to the diversity of consumer projects.
  3. How about taking on the ‘bottom line’? Perhaps most importantly – and certainly the most problematic – is that we are where we are because the economy rules.  Dismantling the supply chain and disengaging food networks from the mainstream economy, then building a new system is something that a lot of small, diverse organisations seem to be working on with some local success.  Doing this on a much bigger scale and in different parts of the food system would be incredibly difficult, but could offer fantastic opportunities.  This does assume that this is what is wanted, of course – it may be that being ‘alternative’ in some way is actually desirable and useful.

Difficult?  Naïve?  Completely unworkable?  Well, so are many other issues.  It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start working on them, though.  Food is so much more than the edible stuff on our plates, and the system that puts it there is massive and complex.  This is going to be a really big conversation – and it’s far too important to let everyone else decide the outcomes.