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/

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

Developing Sustainable Dietary Guidelines

by Pamela Mason

Wales should consider developing sustainable dietary guidelines. Like most existing dietary guidelines, dietary guidelines in the UK have a narrow view of how diet relates to health. In essence, they restrict the concept of diet to the amounts of nutrients contained in foods and the concept of health to the presence or absence of diseases caused by the lack or excess of of one or more nutrients in the diet. While the amounts of nutrients in foods and diets is of course relevant for health, this is only one of the characteristics of diets that are relevant to disease, health and well-being.

Foods and diets are more than carriers of nutrients. Foods are produced, transformed and supplied within food systems whose characteristics influence health through their impact on society and the environment. Food systems can be socially and environmentally sustainable promoting justice and protection of the living world. Alternatively they can create many types of inequity and threats to natural resources and biodiversity. At a social level, the context of eating, like when, why, where and with whom meals are consumed as well as the symbolic and emotional values of foods, dishes and meals contribute to the enjoyment of eating, the building of memories and customs and the strengthening of relationships and connections, all of which are important to health and well-being.

Conventional dietary guidelines treat foods as mere carriers of nutrients, so understating the relationship between diet and well-being. They treat foods as mere carriers of nutrient, overlook the cultural dimensions of diet and typically fail to consider the link between diet and the social and environmental sustainability of food systems. Healthy, sustainable dietary guidelines derive from socially and environmentally sustainable food systems.

In Wales, we need sustainable dietary guidelines that take into account not only the nutrient content of food and diet, but also the impact of the means of production and distribution of food on social justice and environmental integrity. The Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 is about improving the social, environmental, economic and cultural well-being of Wales and sustainability must be embedded into everything public sector bodies in Wales do. Given that food is essential to, and at the centre of, life sustainability should also be built into the food system across Wales. Sustainable Dietary Guidelines would help to improve the availability of healthy, sustainable food choices and hence, over time, a more sustainable food system fit for the 21st century.